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When Shale Gas Met Software

Getting shale gas out of the ground is one thing. But taking it to customers is quite another.

mountain-sea slow gif

American pipeline operators are investing as much as $40 billion every year to maintain, modernize and expand their networks. The shale gas boom is putting operators under pressure to move more gas to marketfaster and more safely, and many U.S. pipelines have been in service for at least two decades.

“We need an agile and comprehensive pipeline solution that could be delivered quickly and allows for a more real-time view of pipeline integrity across our interstate natural gas pipelines,” says Shawn Patterson, president of operations and project delivery at Columbia Pipeline Group.

Columbia runs a 15,000-mile gas pipeline network linking the Gulf Coast to the mid-Atlantic region and the Northeast. It will soon start using GE software and big data to monitor its network in almost real time, and streamline its operations and planning.

The technology, called Intelligent Pipeline Solution, combines GE software and hardware with Accenture’s data integration expertise. It runs on Predix, GE’s industrial software platform, and links pipelines to the Industrial Internet for the first time.

The Intelligent Pipeline Solution is the first commercial product GE and Accenture have offered up since they formed their software and big data partnership in 2013. The companies expect the system to be operational in the first half on 2015.

The world’s pipelines stretch for some 2 million miles, enough to wrap themselves 80 times around the equator. GE estimates every 150,000 miles of pipeline generates an amount of data equal the entire printed collection of the Library of Congress, or 10 terabytes.

Brian Palmer, chief executive of GE’s Measurement & Control unit, says that the new system will help customers like Columbia make the right decisions at the right time to keep their assets safe. It will help them send repair machinery and crews where they are needed most, and speed up response time to problems.

The system is designed to harvest data from sensors installed along the pipes and equipment, sync it with external data sources and deliver to customers detailed analytics and risk assessment from key points of the network. “The goal is to help pipeline operators make proactive, rather than reactive decisions,” Palmer says.

The piece first appeared in GE Reports.


Global Health Innovation at Work: A New Approach to Cancer Screening

Innovation is the buzzword of the decade. Touted by government officials, corporate and civic leaders and entrepreneurs, the word has become a stand-in for anything cutting edge or trend setting.


But for those of us working in the field of global health, innovation is the driving force behind transformational change that can propel the most promising solutions to the world’s relentless health challenges.

Innovation in global health is more than scientific breakthroughs and engineering feats, and shiny new technology — it means offering health providers in impoverished and remote communities the opportunity to save lives with safe, effective and affordable healthcare interventions.

That’s the essence of the innovation behind the “single visit approach” (SVA), a strategy for cervical cancer prevention pioneered by Jhpiego, a global health affiliate of Johns Hopkins University.

For most women in the developing world, screening for cervical cancer is rare, resulting in over 270,000 women needlessly dying every year from what is a preventable and treatable disease. The SVA is a low-cost method that uses simple vinegar to screen and offers same-day cryotherapy treatment, all at a fraction of the cost of the traditional PAP smear and saving the time and expense of making another trip to the clinic.

SVA is saving lives in 22 countries around the world where Jhpiego has supported cervical cancer prevention programs. In Tanzania, Julietha Makyala, a 37-year-old mother of three children, decided to take advantage of a free cervical cancer screening. She and 13 other women screened that day at a health facility in Njombe tested positive for precancerous lesions and were able to receive treatment quickly and safely during the same visit.

That kind of impact is exciting and energizing, but what about the millions of women who aren’t as lucky as Makyala? The success of the cervical cancer “screen and treat” programs in preventing women like Makyala and others from dying unnecessarily from cervical cancer depends on something quite simple: cryotherapy equipment that works, is affordable and empowers the healthcare workers in the outer corners of health systems worldwide to treat the women whom they screen and among whom they identify pre-cancerous lesions.

Yet in many countries, cryotherapy equipment that is cost-effective, robust and efficient for the single visit approach remains a bottleneck. It was this reality that prompted a team from Jhpiego and Johns Hopkins University Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design to develop CryoPop — a new, inexpensive cryotherapy device that is portable and cost-effective.

Let’s take a moment to walk in the shoes of a nurse in rural Tanzania, Antonia Masinga. Like most healthcare workers in developing countries, Masinga’s job is demanding; and like the rest of us, she takes pride and ownership in the ability to do her job well and deliver life-saving healthcare to her community.

Her health clinic would like to start its own SVA cervical cancer program in her district, but the one piece of cryotherapy equipment they have cost a lot, so they could only buy one or two. One of them is now broken, and the cost and complexity to get it fixed has rendered it a dust collector in the corner of her clinic.

Now, when women come in to get screened, if Masinga detects a pre-cancerous lesion, she often has to refer the women elsewhere to get treated. As they walk out the door, Masinga worries that the woman will go home and her lesion will progress without getting treated, a missed opportunity and a tragic reality.

CryoPop is designed for people like Masinga, but costs a fraction of existing cryotherapy devices. It is also more robust and uses CO2 more efficiently — a gas that’s available wherever anyone drinks Coca-Cola. That means we will be able to see and treat more women at a lower cost to the health system.

In advanced product development stage, the CryoPop team has spent extensive time with users and clinical experts from all over the world. In addition to empowering healthcare workers like Masinga and making successful cervical cancer prevention and treatment programs a reality for women and families regardless of where they live, it turns out that CryoPop could also be an attractive alternative for clinical providers in developed or emerging markets in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. CryoPop has the potential to close the gap in cervical cancer prevention and treatment.

Developing technology for global health is not easy, with —even the simplest technologies facing a challenging course to move from idea to impact. CryoPop is simple, but transformational — empowering frontline health workers who are committed to providing quality, life-saving care to the women who need it most. And with the help of partners like the GE Foundation, we are closer to bringing this change about.

It is up to us to find the intersection of innovation, global health need, and engineering and scientific breakthroughs to deliver on the promise of global health technology.

Brinnon Garrett Mandel is the Director of the Innovations Program at Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University, managing a portfolio of global health technology innovations and a team of bright engineers and public health clinicians, researchers, and practitioners. With a background in both public health and business, Mandel has worked in various roles at Jhpiego and in the private sector, with an interest in the intersection of global health, technology and business.


Does Your Brain Need a Few Reps at the Gym?

Some muscles are easier to flex. Athletes can hit the weight room to run a faster 40-yard dash, but what about engineers looking to improve their memory and problem-solving skills?


Welcome to the brave new world of brain training, where companies such as Brainturk, Lumosity and Mindsparke offer specialized games and mental activities to “exercise” and enhance cognitive capacity and mental health. While the concept may sound more rooted in science fiction than reality, it’s based on real breakthroughs in neuroscience, namely the concept of neuroplasticity.

One Word: Plastic

The physiology of gray matter is still one of the most mysterious phenomena in natural science. It was long believed that brain cells develop in utero and remain essentially the same through adulthood — that our brains don’t change much over our lifetime. That’s no longer believed to be true.

“During most of the 20th century, the consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood,” says Kiran Kumar, founder of Brainturk. “This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood.”

Kumar cited other research showing that supports the theory that “working memory can be increased in adults.”

In the face of a growing body of evidence suggesting that life experiences affect brain cell growth and development — the idea behind neuroplasticity — services such as Brainturk and Mindsparke ask the obvious question: If our brains can change, can we change them for the better?”

Stay tuned

Neuroplasticity is accepted science, but brain training is still a nascent industry that has sparked its share of debate. Though studies have shown that users get better at brain-training games over time, researchers are still looking at how that correlates to abilities in the real world — including job skills.

So far, anecdotal evidence is positive, but definitive proof never hurts when you’re trying to market the efficacy of a product. “There is a tendency for companies to say a certain measure represents X ability, but there may be insufficient, if any, research to support the assertion,” Dr. Sherry L. Willis, a University of Washington research professor told the New York Times.

A 2008 study by scientists from the University of Michigan and Bern found that 30 minutes a day of using training method boosted the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants by at least 40 percent more than a control group after just 19 days.

“This kind of jump in our thinking power can do wonders for our job performance,” says Martin Walker, an Oxford-trained scientist who founded MindSparke, which employs a similar training method in its program.

Walker, who calls the brain “the most valuable asset” in our careers, says brain training is a way to invest in your future.

Brainturk and Lumosity are currently working with researchers to study cognitive training. Brainturk is doing a clinical trial with a pharmaceutical company, while Luminosity is conducting research with institutions that include Harvard and Columbia.

Kumar acknowledges that Brainturk is exploring uncharted waters, but he sees a promising future for cognitive training as a means for personal — and professional — growth.

“The brain fitness industry is quite new and as per a market survey, it is set to grow in the upcoming years,” Kumar says. “We at Brainturk hope to provide tools to individuals as well as corporates to improve their overall mental health and gain peak performance at a very low cost using the latest technologies.”

Given the intense competition among businesses to attract the best and the brightest, is it only a matter of time before they start investing in their talent’s brain power?


Running on Waste Heat

Gang Chen’s thermoelectric devices turn waste heat into electricity for vehicles and other machines.

It’s estimated that more than half of U.S. energy — from vehicles and heavy equipment, for instance — is wasted as heat. Mostly, this waste heat simply escapes into the air. But that’s beginning to change, thanks to thermoelectric innovators such as MIT’s Gang Chen.


Thermoelectric materials convert temperature differences into electric voltage. About a decade ago, Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering and head of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, used nanotechnology to restructure and dramatically boost the efficiency of one such material, paving the way for more cost-effective thermoelectric devices.

Using this method, GMZ Energy, a company co-founded by Chen and collaborator Zhifeng Ren of the University of Houston, has now created a thermoelectric generator (TEG) — a one-square-inch, quarter-inch-thick module — that turns waste heat emitted by vehicles into electricity to lend those vehicles added power.

“Everybody recognizes the great potential of waste heat, but the challenge has always been that not many think seriously about systems that can turn that heat into power,” Chen says. “It’s not just waste heat, it’s wasted potential to do useful work.”

In a TEG, electricity is generated when heat enters the top of the module, and then moves through the semiconductor material — packed into the TEG — to the cooler side. The resulting motion of electrons in the semiconductor under this temperature difference creates a voltage that’s extracted as electricity.

However, in many TEGs, atomic vibrations in the material can also leak heat from the hot to the cold side. GMZ’s method essentially slows the heat leakage, leading to a 30 to 60 percent increase in performance across many thermoelectric materials.

The company’s TEG can withstand temperatures of roughly 600 degrees Celsius on its hot side (top surface), while maintaining a temperature of 100 C on its cold side (bottom surface). With this gradient of 500 C, a module that’s 4 centimeters squared can produce 7.2 watts of power. Installed near a car’s exhaust pipe, for instance, this converted electricity could power the car’s electrical components, essentially reducing the load on the vehicle’s alternator, reducing fuel costs and overall emissions.

In June, GMZ successfully generated 200 watts from a larger TEG as part of $1.5 million program supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The goal is to eventually integrate multiple 200-watt TEGs into the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a U.S. military tank, to produce 1,000 watts, helping save on fuel consumed on the battlefield, which can cost $40 per gallon.

GMZ is also working under another $9 million DOE grant as part of a program to improve fuel economy in passenger vehicles by 25 percent. GMZ has plans to soon apply its TEGs to cars, with aims of improving efficiency by 5 percent.

Decades in the making

The concept of thermoelectrics dates back to 1821. Initially called the Seebeck effect, after its discoverer Thomas Seebeck, it derives from heating one end of a conductive material — a semiconductor, for example — to cause electrons to move to the cooler end, producing an electric current. Applying a current to the material, in turn, carries heat from the hot to the cool end.

Thermoelectric technologies picked up steam in the 1950s, as companies and research labs started funding projects to bring the technology to real-world applications. Although these efforts led to niche applications in refrigeration and sensors, large-scale applications did not materialize, because thermoelectric materials are notoriously inefficient: While these materials conduct electricity well, they also conduct heat well, so they’d equalize temperature quickly, leading to a low efficiency.

The field remained stagnant for decades. Then, in the 1990s, researchers — including Institute Professor Emeritus Mildred Dresselhaus at MIT — began using nanotechnology to restructure thermoelectric materials for greater efficiency.

Chen arrived at MIT in 2001 after researching thin films and nanowire-based thermoelectrics for four years at the University of California at Los Angeles, including a long-distance collaboration with Dresselhaus. At MIT, he continued his collaboration with Dresselhaus and brought in Ren, a materials expert, to develop new materials.

Then, in 2008, Chen, Ren, and Dresselhaus met another milestone: They realized a 40 percent increase in the efficiency of bismuth antimony telluride — materials used in thermoelectric coolers — using an inexpensive process.

As described in a Science paper that year, Chen and his team crushed the material into a nanoscopic dust and reconstituted it in bulk form — with grains and irregularities that dramatically slowed the passage of phonons through the material. (Phonons, a quantum mode of vibration, are primary means of heat conduction.) This reined in the heat leakage, while allowing for the free flow of electrons.

Using a cost-effective and safe alloy in bulk form meant the material could be applied to a variety of applications. And Chen saw that the method — “now widely used around the world,” he says — was ripe for commercialization. “With thermoelectrics, you’re always doing research for potential application,” he says.

“Once the material was good, it was time to move.”

The world “needs a device”

To branch out into a startup, Chen found inspiration from MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. “You sort of feel it,” he says. “You hear and see what other people are doing and you get inspired.” (Now, he says, he’s become part of that ecosystem, “guiding students who want to start a company.”)

After their discovery, Chen and Ren launched GMZ out of a garage in Waltham, Mass., with the broad goal of developing and commercializing their materials.

“But we were a little naive,” Chen says. “It turns out that because the thermoelectric market is small, there’s no big buyer. We realized the materials world wasn’t just about materials. It needs a device.”

Three years later, they had tangible products to pitch to investors: a device that could draw electricity from solar hot-water collectors and an early version of the current TEG module. They managed to raise $7 million in their first funding round and $18 million a few months later.

But challenges persisted. Because there was no similar product on the market, they went through years of trial and error; deciding on materials, for example, is challenging, because in thermoelectric applications there are many types of materials to use and a variety of heat sources. “The [efficiency] of a material depends on temperature you’re facing,” Chen explains. “So you have to look at what’s the heat source temperature, and what material matches that temperature range.”

For their commercial TEG modules, which the company started producing around 2011, GMZ settled on half-Heusler materials, an alloy with a strong crystal structure that allows great stability at high temperatures. But the company has future plans for other materials: bismuth telluride, lead telluride, the mineral skutterudites, and silicon germanium.

Apart from giving the company a boost, the development of TEGs was a means of helping the whole market evolve, Chen says: “Thermoelectrics isn’t something you can see. It’s not as recognized as a battery or photovoltaic cell. The whole field needs successful products on the market to sustain, inspire, and stimulate innovation. That’s really a mission for people working on this.”

Ultimately, Chen sees GMZ as a big step toward his goal of helping create a more energy-efficient world. “Most of my research at MIT is about energy,” he says. “The motivation for me is really taking this basic research into the real world. I take great pride in that.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News.


Why U.S. Competitiveness Is on the Rise

For an economist whose job it is to measure countries’ success (or otherwise) in laying the foundations for long-term prosperity, the concept of green shoots for me takes on a different meaning to those most often reported in the press as harbingers of better times.

KAL 777-F Factory Rollout in Everett WA

Increases in gross domestic product, falls in joblessness and upticks in new housing starts are of course good and welcome, but taken alone these indicators offer us little insight into how the U.S. economy will be doing in five or ten years’ time.

This is the purpose of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, which every year attempts to measure each of the factors that we feel are critical to an economy’s long-term success. We measure 112 of them in total, from the amount of red tape involved in starting a business and trust in political leaders to a country’s capacity to train and retain skilled workers. Why do we care about these? Because without these fundamental drivers of productivity, no economic recovery could ever be sustained.

If this year’s report is anything to go by, green shoots of the kind I am used to looking out for are indeed starting to flower across the U.S. Of the 144 countries we measured, America climbed two places to third in our global ranking. It’s tough at the top and this two-place rise is not to be sniffed at — by leapfrogging Germany and Finland in this year’s Index (it now trails only Switzerland and second-placed Singapore), the country is sending a clear message that its long-term prospects are on the up.

Looking beyond the U.S.’s rise to third place, what does this year’s report tell us? For one thing, it confirms the U.S.’s status as an innovation powerhouse. Not only is it home to some of the most sophisticated and innovative companies in the world, it is also excelling in efforts to groom the next generation of bluechip companies. Efforts such as the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, which aims to revive the manufacturing sector by bridging the gap between early-stage public research and private commercialization, are indicative of the efforts being made here that other parts of the world find so hard to replicate.

The U.S. moved up from fifth to third place in this year’s Global Competitiveness Report. Video courtesy of World Economic Forum.

The U.S. is doing well on other fundamentals as well. Its traditionally efficient and flexible labour market will be a key asset for employers as they seek to allocate resources towards growth. These factors are helping the U.S. regain its edge, but there is plenty of work still to be done if the country is to regain its position at the pinnacle of global competitiveness. A major push for structural reform will be necessary and for this to happen, U.S. politicians will have to think long term.

For one thing, infrastructure, be it in transport, electricity or telephony, needs improving and the country must find a way of investing more than the 0.6% of GDP it currently spends (lower than any other country in the OECD) to put it right.

The quality of education continues to cause concern too: a ranking of 36th for health and primary education and 51st for quality of math and science education is going to be a worry for any country looking to build on its innovative strengths. Indeed, the fact that the number of unfilled positions neared a record high earlier this year suggests the recovery is already beginning to be affected by this.

Smart investment to ensure that primary and secondary schooling improves significantly and that vocational training meets the needs of businesses is essential to underpin long-term competitiveness and encouragingly, again, we see green shoots. Change The Equation, a scheme that works with business leaders to promote science, technology, engineering and math is a great example, as is the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative, which despite its clumsy name is proving adept at addressing the skills gap in its industry.

The greatest challenge for America as it builds for the future, however, is figuring out how to get the most out of two crucial determinants of competitiveness that are currently in short supply: institutional strength and public funds for investment. Despite recent modest movement in the right direction, America’s macroeconomic environment — in particular, its budget balance (the U.S. ranks 130thin the world) and government debt (134th) — is dire and leaves leaders little room for manoeuvre when it comes to investing in infrastructure and education and other productivity drivers. Institutions, too, have a way to go before being able to be called world class — our measurement of public trust in politicians is relatively unchanged on last year.

The task may be Herculean, but it is far from impossible, and achieving it will require decision-making based not on the electoral cycle, but on the long-term drivers of prosperity. Only then will the green shoots that we see today truly put down roots.

This piece first appeared in the World Economic Forum blog.

Top image: Courtesy of Boeing

Margareta Drzeniek is Head of Global Competitiveness Risks at the World Economic Forum


Change May be Hard, but Failure Stinks

Slater Mill, built in 1793 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is considered the starting point of America’s Industrial Revolution. When Slater substituted water power for human labor, manufacturing output, distribution and profits improved — and the modern manufacturing business model was ignited.

Wagner hero

This business model still required human labor, but not in the same way as before. During this revolution, American manufacturers capitalized on recent discoveries, using new materials and energy sources to support improvements in farming, textiles, goods manufacture and everyday activities. This allowed farmers to grow more, tradesmen to produce more, and both groups to sell more. It also changed the nature of work, the routines of householders and businesspeople — and society in general.

Those centuries were marked by a sensibility that continues to guide manufacturing even now. Manufacturing has unfail­ingly put new ideas to work, from those early water-driven spindles to the nanoparticles used in “intrinsic healing” coatings today. Scientists, artists and backyard inventors continue to play a starring role in manufacturing innovation. At the shop-floor level, manufacturing employees are often playing an analogous role, identifying process innovations.

Yet nostalgia for “old-time manufacturing” still colors the thinking of many Americans, who pine for the days when a person with little education but a lot of strength of character could hold down a good job with a Michigan auto­maker, an Ohio parts-maker, an Alabama shipbuilder or a California avionics supplier. America’s middle class was literally forged in the manufacturing sector. But as times have changed, manufacturing has changed with them, so that not only new skills — but also new combinations of skills— are required of a manufacturing employee. Today’s requisite manufacturing skills, like its evolving job positions, are still being defined, and they will continue to change over the next several decades. Many of those new jobs will require the following:

  • Sense-making (for dealing with complex situations)
  • Novel and adaptive thinking (for developing innovative ideas and problem-solving)
  • Social intelligence (to understand how best to connect and work with people)
  • Trans-disciplinary facility (to work across multiple disciplines)
  • New-media literacy (to know how to use many forms of media to find, analyze and use information)
  • Computational thinking (for deploying a systems approach to an enterprise or sector)
  • Cognitive load management (to manage information overload)
  • Design mindset (to create new forms that meet function)
  • Cross-cultural competency (to ensure global fluency)
  • Virtual collaboration (to be able to partner with others not seen in the flesh)
  • Technical skills of many different kinds.

As the new skill combinations suggest, manufacturing employees will need to be adept at maneuvering within a high-tech, information-loaded, fast-paced, multidimensional, multinational framework whose inputs may be sourced from anywhere in the world. These inputs include personnel. If there are gaps in critical areas and functions, manufacturers can be expected to source employees who have the right skills from wherever they are located, regardless of country or region.

Advanced manufacturing is fast becoming the dominant type of manu­facturing in the United States, driven by the necessities of economics and national security. The majority of American manufacturing employees will soon be working in its fluid, computational, adaptive, digital world. New approaches to workforce development must therefore be initiated, implemented and institutionalized so that America can build a pipeline of advanced manufacturing talent to fuel its economic growth.

There’s no dearth of organizations, programs and initiatives that intend to recreate America’s manufacturing workforce. So, what could possibly be missing in the effort to close the U.S. skills gap? Why do manufacturers have a continuing problem finding skilled manufacturing employees?

The main problem is that along with disruptive technologies comes disruption in skill requirements. New requirements take some time to fully understand and to teach — once they are even identified. Because the manufacturing sector has changed so dramatically from the Baby Boom generation to the Millennial generation, the long lag that has taken place in updating formal education and training has had a considerable, detrimental effect on the manufacturing competitiveness of many U.S. companies. And unlike most large companies, small businesses don’t have corporate trainers, universities or chief learning officers to negotiate changing skill requirements.

A second — but no less critical — problem is that innovation, exporting, supply-chain management and sustainability used to be for “the big guys.” These issues now shape the environment in which supply chain manufacturers conduct their business, as well. Cost-reduction issues have already been pushed down to them, so small companies must move quickly to access the technology, brain­power, capital financing and flexible business-process approaches that, for a long time, were not necessarily critical to their ongoing success. To stay on top in today’s high-stakes business environment, manufacturers have begun using technology to monitor inputs, outputs, throughputs and revenue. Everything from design and production through marketing and distribution is run or monitored by advanced software applications that can help evaluate the costs and value of business processes.

It is critical for manufacturers to invest in these technologies, for without them they will not be able to compete either domestically or globally. And this includes technologies for aligning business goals with talent management.  So often a company’s workforce skills are considered afterall other business decisions have been made. This is an enormous strategic mistake.

Processes must be standardized for the management and alignment of all systems within operations. This includes standard processes for talent management and the use of the software that facilitates process alignment and analytic capability. Technology allows for simplicity and transparency in talent management, and manufacturers that choose not to use software programs to align business goals with talent management policies and practices are neglecting oversight of a primary source of their revenue and expenses. These software programs are proliferating as open source software and technology infrastructure standards like Tin Can are aligned. And the IT professionals who create these programs can easily be hired to provide custom solutions at reasonable cost.

As a business decision, ignoring the ongoing transformation of talent management options will be a decisive factor for success or failure. The starting gun has been fired.

Stacey Jarrett Wagner is a principal with The JarrettWagner Group, LLC. JWG specializes in imaginative idea development and implementation for workforce issues such as business/workforce analytics, workforce capacity, alignment of workforce and economic development strategies, post-secondary education transitions and training, research and benchmarking for talent management, non-traditional worker strategies, workforce policy assessment and development, and partnering with philanthropic institutions.

A version of this column was initially published in “ReMaking America,” by the Alliance for American Manufacturing.