Jamie Miller, chief executive of GE Transportation, is one of very few senior women in the rail and traffic technology sector. For the launch of the Inno Trans traffic technology expo, which starts in Berlin on Tuesday, the 48-year-old is traveling from the United States to personally recruit new customers.
That’s no easy task in a tough sector, and it’s reason enough for Ms. Miller to make eye-to-eye contact with customers outside the United States. After all, 70 percent of the division’s $5.9 billion turnover comes from overseas customers.
“There are logistics problems all over the world,” Ms. Miller told the Handelsblatt. In North America a great many train models have come on the market in the last few years. At the same time, demand has fallen because of weakening commodities prices.
“That's why the digital business is so exciting. I think digital is unlocking productivity for our customers in spaces where they've never seen it before. ”
“Demand is not as high as it was,” Ms. Miller told Handelsblatt, “but people still need to move goods to keep their economies flowing.”
This, she says, presents an opportunity for GE. “That’s why the digital business is so exciting. I think digital is unlocking productivity for our customers in spaces where they’ve never seen it before.”
A year ago, GE chief executive, Jeff Immelt, sought Ms. Miller out for the job. As chief information officer of General Electric at the time, she was responsible for the conglomerate’s IT. She will now use that expertise to drive forward GE Transportation’s digital business. So far, she’s committed $500 million to digital technology. That figure is to double by 2020, and be at the core of international expansion.
Ms. Miller’s ambitious plan is based around GE’s “GoLINC” system. The technology is like a digital nerve center – “a brain for a train.”At the Inno Trans expo, GE is to announce a joint venture with chipmaker Intel to build a super-brain for locomotives using a new Intel microprocessor that’s 10 to 15 times faster.
“With GoLINC we’re making trains smart – maybe even self-aware,” Ms. Miller said.
GE is building a powerful computer system with storage solutions into the locomotive. The system incorporates real-time data processing, wireless communication, networking, video and data storage, and interfaces with both the locomotive and third-party systems to make data available. It also features onboard wireless capability for easier data transfer.
The systems will include HD cameras and other instruments that sample information on things like loading weight or track condition. The computers will process the information in real-time and send it to the railway control system. So far, GE has fitted more than 6,000 trains with the system. A quarter of those are from suppliers other than GE.
Ms. Miller describes GoLINC as a platform, “like an iPhone.”
The GoLINC operating system has been built to the standards of the American Association of Railroads and Ms. Miller says they’re easily transferable to other countries. Individual railway companies can develop and use their own applications on the platform.
“With time it won’t just be GE,” she said. “Our customers will be able to do it for themselves.”
Seth Bodnar, chief digital officer at GE Transportation, says the company wants to follow a similar business model to Apple’s, selling its own apps to GoLINC customers.
“Railroads are about delivering trains to their destinations, on time and as efficiently and reliably as they can,” he said. “We have had great success with a product called Trip Optimizer, a smart automated cruise control system for a train.”
Trip Optimizer can calculate the quickest route between two points, taking into account a range of factors including weather, loading and network traffic. The train is self-driving. Only in important stations does a driver take the controls. According to GE, the Trip Optimizer reduces diesel consumption by as much as 10 percent.
Ms. Miller sold the “Movement Planner” app to two American customers. She says the system functions like the control tower in an airport. It determines when is the best time for a train to leave and when it should wait to let another train through. GE says the average travel speed across the whole network increases by about 10 percent. With that comes an increase in the maximum capacity the network can cope with. By the end of 2017, GE aims to use the system to control around half North America’s rail traffic.
A few weeks ago, Ms. Miller bought the Florida company Ship-X-Press, to offer digital solutions for industrial customers. There’s no information currently about how much she paid for the company, which employs 200 people. Ship-X-Press writes software to better manage the loading and expediting of goods by rail. With it, GE wants to open a new field in the rail and transport technology market.
“There’s a real opportunity here to take our physical assets and really integrate that with the digital world,” Ms. Miller said.