By John Cropley
Gazette Business Editor
General Electric Global Research rolled out some of its newest technology on April 28 in a display for journalists of initiatives that might some day provide the industrial conglomerate with its next big thing … or just make one of its current products a little better.
STEMcation, as the event is called, included a spectrum of technology and applications from real-time monitoring of human sweat, to remote control of robots large and small, to cloud-based industrial analysis of house-sized equipment on the other side of the globe.
Along with the transformative technology, Global Research leaders discussed their efforts to transform GE’s workforce: The company wants to have more female employees in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.
GE’s “Balance the Equation” initiative has the goal of hiring 20,000 women in these roles by the year 2020, and of achieving a 50-50 gender split in the company’s technical entry-level leadership programs.
Danielle Merfeld, vice president of GE Global Research and general manager of its Niskayuna Technology Center, said GE’s workforce needs to reflect the world the company serves.
Many of the researchers making presentations Friday were women, as were many in the audience — journalists writing for publications including Cosmopolitan, Mental Floss and PC Magazine.
Each presentation managed to place the sometimes-arcane technology in the context of real-world problems and solutions.
— Azar Alizadeh gave a demonstration of real-time human health monitoring, in which wireless sensor patches replace a snake’s nest of wires in a hospital setting or at home, letting medical providers keep tabs on a patient’s health. Fellow materials scientist Andrew Burns rode his race bike a vigorous pace, and a steady readout showed his sweat output minute by minute. Ultimately, the technology could analyze hormone and salt content of sweat shed by people in high-stress situations to avert fatigue and physical or mental collapse.
u Director Shyam Rajan gave an overview of the EDGE Lab, which at 11 months old is one of the newest endeavors on the Niskayuna campus. It’s a project with a very literal name: As he summarized it, the purpose is to “show what is possible at the edge of technology.” It draws from, and can add to, all the other work being done at Global Research and in the company’s numerous industrial businesses.
— Stephanie Kuhne, a mathematician, explained work being done with blockchain technology. It is known for its utility in verifying online transactions and online currencies such as bitcoin, but it also has value when transmitting digital blueprints. The three-dimensional printers in increasing use by GE and other companies at remote locations need exactly the right instructions, and blockchain verifies that the orders haven’t been accidentally changed or intentionally sabotaged.
— John Hoare, a robotics engineer, donned a virtual reality headset and demonstrated remote control of a robot working on a simulated offshore oil platform in the next room. The value, he said, is that the customer can avoid the delay, expense, and potential danger of sending a technician out to a remote location if the repair can be made right from the home office.
— Mechanical engineer Ratnadeep Paul demonstrated a different set of high-tech goggles: An augmented reality device that lets the wearer see where internal organs are in a patient, and target the medical scan correctly. It is designed to train imaging technologists … it appeared some of the journalists taking a test drive would need a lot of training if they decided on a career change.
— Kari Macdonald, a robotics engineer, demonstrated microrobots that can crawl into a turbine, show the technician the problem via a camera, and either fix the problem or help the technician concoct a strategy for fixing it. There is significant potential benefit if they can avoid taking apart a 540,000-pound turbine — a time-consuming and expensive job requiring a crane.
— Three-dimensional printers crafting machine and engine parts out of metal powder in a building near the Mohawk River’s banks present some of the greatest potential for the future. In a single day, the 3-D process can create a part that might take a month to make with traditional manufacturing processes, or even be impossible to fabricate due to its complexity. A key effort right now, said researcher Sarah Felix, is to find a way to adapt existing alloys to the new process.
— Jennifer Gavin, Danielle Kalitan and Masako Yamada gave an overview of digital twins, which use performance data gathered over time to allow GE to suggest better ways for the customer to use and manage their products. It is a rapidly growing field: GE has more than 700,000 digital twins now for everything from a single part in a jet engine to entire wind turbine farms, and expects to have 1 million by year’s end.
— Health care technology is another area of research at Global Research’s Niskayuna headquarters. Heather Chan demonstrated some of GE’s work on ultrasound technology; Fiona Ginty showed examples of how positron emission tomography can detect the earliest precursors of cancer; and Nichole Wood showed GE’s contribution to research on T-cell replacement therapy, a promising type of cancer treatment that is tricky and expensive to prepare.