Tracy Swartzendruber is VP of Marketing for Power Generation and Oil & Gas at GE Digital, connecting industry with software that solves some of industry’s toughest problems. In her own words, “a better run plant is a more efficient plant, which is actually a more sustainable plant.” At the ARC Industry Forum in June, she presented an update on several GE Digital initiatives including the use of “Accelerators” to help plants scale APM across the enterprise.
PS: Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself? What you're woring with GE Digital, how you moved into this area?
TS: Sure, you got the title spot on and what I do, I like to tell in layman's terms when family and friends ask, “What do you do? What do you really do as a marketer?” I like to say that I connect industry with software that solve some of the industry's toughest problems, right? We're helping process-intensive industry run better, essentially. How can we help? A better run plant is a more efficient plant, which is actually a more sustainable plant.
We're doing so many really great things. Even on the power gen side, we have technologies directly focused on helping to provide insights and recommendations on how much power to produce, from what type of generation source, whether that's renewables or fossil, and if it is fossil, we even have products that help those run more efficiently, burning less fuel with fewer emissions. I’ve got to tell you, this is somewhat of a dream job. I've always been lucky in what I've marketed. I could always feel good about it, but now I feel great about what I market.
PS: I hear you, two jobs ago I worked as an EPA contractor, fighting for the right side of cleaning up the stuff that was making the world a dirtier place. Now working for Plant Services, I feel very similar, especially with announcements like yours at the press conference at ARC. You linked the software solutions that GE Digital is providing so quickly and effectively with sustainability.
TS: Awesome. I'm glad that you picked up on that.
PS: One of the things you launched at the event were GE Digital’s Accelerators, and these are software modules designed to help plants streamline their reliability efforts. Tracy, for those listening, can you talk more about the Accelerators, and introduce them to our audience?
TS: Sure, I'll start with the explanation specific to our product, and then I'll get into the provocateur in me and the way that I like to explain it to folks just like me, right?
Accelerators are really, if you think about it, they are downloadable content that collapses your time to value with our applications. They might be analytics, it could be a dashboard, can be an asset strategy, that have deep domain expertise because not only as the software developer, but as in many cases, the implementer, within industry. We know the best practices and we have seen time and again, dozens if not hundreds of times, customers needing the same type of configuration. So some smart people within the organization said, “Hey, we keep seeing the same requests. Why don't we package these? Why don't we productize these services that we are doing?”
That's really what an Accelerator is. It's a way to get faster time to value, so that instead of making 27 different decisions and the work behind setting up an asset strategy, we can give you those prepackaged strategies. Instead of just deploying APM against the most critical assets in your facility or enterprise, you can go ahead and deploy it against all the tier-two and tier-three assets that you always say, “We’ll get to it.” And we all know what happens there, right? You never do get to it. This is a way of really ramping up and bang, you get to now apply it to hundreds of other assets.
The easy way of explaining it to those who still don't quite understand this, is that APM is like Minecraft. I have a 13-year-old son who, who still plays Minecraft. I know a lot of adults do too. And for those who aren't familiar with it, Minecraft is a “sandbox” video game. It's creative, and people create in it. You can be given a world, but you can go into creator mode where you create your world.
I like to think of Accelerators as just that: you can go into Minecraft and have a sort of blank canvas, if you will, but there are now all kinds of downloadable content packages from the owners of Minecraft, which I think these days is Microsoft, as well as other creators out there so that you don't have to spend hours of work building a texture for something – you can just go ahead and download that.
In my simple mind, that's an Accelerator, right? They could have just as easily called theirs “accelerators” because it's bringing that faster time to value. Now, I get Minecraft – half the fun is building it – but I would say with an APM, you just want the value, right? The fun isn't necessarily in building it. It's just, “get me the end result,” and that's what we're doing.
PS: I take your point because these Accelerators help meet the plant teams where they are on their projects. Not necessarily even on the maturity process of the team, when it comes to say advanced predictive or prescriptive maintenance, this is a chance for plants to leverage software packages to solve the problems they are working on at that moment. That's something we always preach here at Plant Services, is when you do move into these more proactive maintenance projects, you don't have to boil the ocean to fix all the assets. You focus on the assets that are most critical, like you alluded to, and you focus on the problems that you want to solve at that moment and then sort of grow from there. That really sounds like what the accelerators can help people do, is you download what you need at that moment to help make your journey easier and quicker.
TS: That's exactly right. I really want to lean into the idea of, there are tons of just phenomenally smart and experienced people in our industry, but sometimes they just don't have the time, or sometimes they might have deep expertise to a point and these Accelerators really do take a body of other experts within industry, and give you sort of that base.
You can still customize, that's the other really key thing here, is we can give it to you and then you can decide: do you want to just plug it in as is, or do you still want to make nuanced changes that suit your particular process or needs? You can still do that, but we've given you that maybe let's say 80% of a jump start on things, if you still feel the need to customize.
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PS: It's an intriguing way to leverage the rest of industry’s plant knowledge too. You and the team drew these Accelerators from the use cases you saw most often. So what's happening is that, anonymously, people who have run into these issues before are sort of donating their expertise in the form of these Accelerators to help other plants reduce the time to get the job done. That's really intriguing.
TS: Absolutely. I think what you're describing there almost feels a tiny bit, without intending it, maybe crowdsourcing knowledge and expertise.
PS: Great word, that's it! Given that sort of crowdsourcing element to it, are you able to talk about any results from customer tests in the field? Maybe a better way to ask the question would be, what are you hearing from customers who are trying these out at this point?
TS: The feedback has been fantastic, and you know, these aren't necessarily new. It's a new deployment, it's a new packaging, but we've been doing these as services in the past, we've been doing it for years. The feedback is fantastic, it’s phenomenal, and the new feedback is, “wow, you've now just unlocked and unleashed so much more to us.” Part of the accelerate, and I'm overusing that word, but it is a jump start, and it's “now you're giving us the ability to cover so much more, to do so much more, in terms of maybe an asset strategy, in terms of a health and reliability dashboard, of just giving me that head start of my view of what I should be paying attention to, and then I can grow and learn and modify.” Really the response to these is incredibly favorable.
PS: You're taking me back to the days when I used to be more of a web designer and web content specialist. And the day I discovered there was a thing called GitHub, my eyes just opened wide, like, “oh my gosh, there’s a resource like this?”
TS: That's definitely a great analogy, probably a little more relatable than maybe even Minecraft. Maybe not as fun, but that's exactly it, right? You go to the resource hub and you go, “okay, who else has built something?” There's a lot of smart people out there and what can I use?
PS: Let me switch over to another announcement that you made at the ARC event, which was that GE Digital has achieved Amazon Web Services or AWS Energy Competency status, and this ties into your comments about sustainability earlier. It was positioned as an achievement that helps industrial companies accelerate their energy transition specifically. So tell us more about this achievement.
TS: So it sounds small, but I have to tell you, there are months and months of work behind it, and this really is an achievement. We submitted for it with the basis of our APM solution in the cloud of course, and it was thoroughly vetted and put under a microscope to make sure, “is it truly architected, developed, etc.?”
That's really for scalability, rapid deployment of our APM solution. We believe that APM is this foundational bedrock of energy transition. If you do not have solid foundation in your current operational excellence, right, whether you're in oil and gas or whether you're a power generator, for example, you're not going to be able to take those next steps, you have to have those initial items in order.
And even for a power generator, being able to produce reliable, affordable, and sustainable power has everything to do with reliability. Traditional power plants were designed to run at base load continuously with maybe a ramp-up / ramp-down once or twice a day. That is not the case anymore. As we bring more and more renewables online, those plants are having to more rapidly react, and turn-up / turn-down all over the place. There's even this notion of the duck curve, where you can really see as the renewables come on and it takes a dip, and then it takes a huge spike up, reliability is everything because they need to know that they can generate when needed and quickly. That's really the basis for the AWS competency status, and why our APM solution is that foundational piece for us.
PS: Let me ask you one more question. What's your sense of how the sustainable moment will persist now? Do you think it's going to take additional pressure from industry to keep this moment front of mind? Do you think that sustainability has moved into that permanent front of mind status when it comes to things like ESG reporting?
TS: Personally, I think sustainability, net-zero, energy transition, however you want to frame it, is the most pressing issue of our generation, and more importantly, of future generations. I think that's what's going to keep it at the forefront for the foreseeable future until we do hit that goal, and I think the pressure is on. As I think about it, now that we've entered the 2020s, it feels like it's right around the corner. 2050 for this concept of net-zero is not far away when you consider that we have to cut our emissions in half by 2030, by most accounts, so the pressure is on. And again, it's not just our generation, but the future generations that are even going to exert more pressure for us to get this right, and to hit these targets.
I think that's why it's not just buzzwords anymore, and you can't just say it. This is come to the table with tangible, meaningful outcomes, and how you can make an impact. When I look back 10 years ago, 15 years ago, it was somewhat lip service, right? A lot of folks were saying things, a lot of things were “green” and in most part it was for lip service’s sake. You can't get away with that anymore. That's unacceptable. People really do want tangible results, and I think it really shows the level of importance and scrutiny that has come to this topic.
PS: That's something that's interesting about the maintenance field in general is that it's a field that needs to attract skilled workers, like many in the industry, and going forward, it does feel like a sustainability background or even a background in an environmental science or facility management will make candidates that much more attractive, because going forward, asset performance management is going to be linked so closely with energy use at the facility. You’ll need candidates who might not otherwise consider reliability as a field, but who may be interested in environmental science and they'll say, “oh, hey, look, I can actually have an impact. Maybe I'm not out there working with the weather patterns, but I'm working in industrial facilities, watching power use and making sure that they do observe net-zero initiatives.
TS: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. I think a lot of folks are going to get drawn to these industries, because they are the very industries that can have the greatest good impact in terms of helping them reduce footprints and so forth. I think there's a huge attraction; if you want to make a difference, these are the industries to get involved in. They're the ones that have a heavier lift ahead of them and are much more rewarding.
PS: Our three boys are under 12 and they're about two rooms over, and I think they're literally playing Minecraft at this moment. So to tie it back into where we started, it's this next generation that's going to be very aware that the games they play and the work they do has a direct connection to the power that's consumed and the way they can eventually contribute to a more sustainable consumption.
TS: Yeah, absolutely.
PS: Tracy, thank you so much for taking time today to talk with us. Where can we point people if they want to not just Google “Accelerators”? Where can they go for more information?
TS: I'm going to point them directly to ge.com/digital. And there you're going to see a wealth of not only just the power generation oil & gas portfolio, but all of GE Digital's portfolio, which again, I could go on and on for days about the good things that our products do, but it's a wealth of information there.