Why you should care
A digital rail revolution is reigniting the global supply chain.
The author, Seth Bodnar, is the chief digital officer of GE Transportation. Bodnar is a former U.S. Army Ranger. He was also an infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq and served in the 1st Special Forces Group.
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Every year each person in the U.S. requires the movement of approximately 80,000 pounds of freight — and there’s a good chance it’s shipped by rail. Sure, trucks, boats and planes are important parts of our supply chain, but it’s our rail network that accounts for how about 40 percent of U.S. freight moves. So if you want your new sneakers for that upcoming game or if you expect your grocery store to be stocked up on your favorite leafy greens, it’s important that our trains run on time. And right now, they are a little clogged up.
Welcome to the digitization of the rail industry, a mission to enhance the efficiency, productivity and velocity of locomotives — the long-regarded backbone of a $1.4 trillion transportation and logistics industry.
What happens when the ultimate symbol of the industrial age, the locomotive, roars into the age of the Industrial Internet? The network of 140,000 miles of railroads and 1.7 million rail cars in the U.S. gets a futuristic upgrade. Envision trains transformed into rolling data centers: Hundreds of sensors monitor everything from the route to the load. Delays are prevented, and fuel consumption and emissions are reduced. Intelligent software also connects the smart locomotives with the next stage of transport, ensuring a smooth exchange.
Enabling self-aware trains in a smart, connected ecosystem could save the rail industry billions of dollars a year, according to GE.
The first stop: self-aware trains that check their own health and performance while also connecting with vehicles in the larger transportation ecosystem — from trucks to container ships. In the U.S. alone, an average of 5 million tons of goods ranging from cars to coal are delivered on a daily basis, according to the Association of American Railroads. For an industry encumbered with unplanned delays and safety and environmental concerns, a rail revolution means big gains in productivity.
The high-tech rail revolution is moving full steam ahead toward a future of autonomous locomotives, says Nicholas Heymann, analyst at investment banking and asset management firm William Blair. In fact, he expects it will become a major focus by 2025. In the interim, a more connected transport and logistics ecosystem will lead to “tremendous amounts of incremental improvement.” We’re talking a boost in average velocity, and innovative ways to cut emissions and solutions that Heymann says provide “smart automated cruise control” for freight delivery — one that rolls out a personalized plan for each train over a given territory.
At GE, this vision starts with GoLINC, the brain of the train that functions as an onboard processing, storage, networking and communication platform. GoLINC turns a locomotive into a mobile data center from which apps can be bolted on. Trip Optimizer, for example, ingests data about the train’s route and load and then automatically drives the train in the most fuel-efficient manner. So far Trip Optimizer has helped railroads save more than 100 million gallons of diesel fuel.
But a superefficient train is not helpful if the overall network is congested. Clearly, two trains can’t occupy the same piece of track at the same time. When two trains approach a point in the system, one must pull off and wait while the other train passes. GE’s Movement Planner acts like an air traffic control system for rail, optimizing the decision-making process. By the end of 2017, Movement Planner aims to help optimize nearly half of U.S. freight rail traffic.
To be sure, there are some hurdles to overcome before we steam full speed ahead into a rail revolution. First, there’s the challenge of widespread adoption, and, as Heymann explains, with different types of rail systems around the world sprawling over various types of terrain and regulations, it’s not always an easy puzzle to piece together. Upgrades are also required for some existing rail cars so that they can be properly outfitted with sensors and smart solutions.
But there’s potential at the end of the tunnel. For example, GE’s recent digital pilot, announced with Europe’s largest rail operator Deutsche Bahn Cargo, opened the gates for locomotives to run on cutting-edge platform Predix and thereby get to their destination more reliably and predictably. With global acceptance of digitization on track to improve the productivity and efficiency of the global rail system, rail innovation will only accelerate in the future.
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