GE working to solve battery issues for EVs: South Asia CTO Alok Nanda

Alok Nanda, CTO of GE South Asia and CEO of GE India Technology Centre
Alok Nanda, chief technology officer of GE South Asia and CEO of GE India Technology Centre, tells Bibhu Ranjan Mishra & Yuvraj Malik about some of the cutting edge research being conducted by GE India Technology Centre and the way this will disrupt areas such as aviation, power, and health care. Edited excerpts:

You are one of the few leaders in GE Research who have been involved with several turnkey projects. As head of GE’s India Technology Centre, said to be the largest outside its headquarters, what sort of goals have you set?

I have laid out a three-pronged objective. Businesses are very focussed on being profitable today, but there is also life tomorrow. So, my first objective is to nurture technologies that will have an exponential impact tomorrow. One example is additive technology. We are also working in areas like artificial intelligence, Edge technology, hybrid mission and so on. The second objective is what I call ‘multiplier mission’. Much of the talent at this centre are working for their respective verticals or business teams. I am trying to get them together so that we are able to deliver stronger results than what we are able to deliver working in silos. The third focus area is to work with the larger ecosystem in the country, including reputed academic institutions and research bodies, and leverage their expertise to create best solutions for society.

What kind of collaboration do you have with academic institutions in futuristic technologies?

We have an ongoing programme at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras in additive research technologies. The government is funding 75 per cent of the project while GE is funding the rest. IIT-Madras can use that (technology) to solve typical industry challenges. The technology they develop will be useful not only for us, but also for society at large.  

Why is additive technology becoming so critical for companies like GE, or any company that is into industrial manufacturing?

In the traditional method of manufacturing, one has to use CNC machines or cutters to take metal out of a big piece of metal. This is why it is called subtractive technology. However, additive technology helps one to add metals and give shape to complex designs capable of delivering better performance while keeping the weight and the cost of the product low.

At GE, you have been associated with building heavy-duty gas and wind turbines. What are the innovations taking place in this field?

We are bringing Edge technology to wind and gas turbines and also aircraft engines. ‘Edge’ is a device which can be plugged into a machine. It’s called Edge because it’s on the edge of the physical and the digital. Most of our wind turbines have Edge built into them as does all our new equipment in the healthcare space. With the help of Edge, we can monitor the health and performance of a turbine from anywhere in the world. This goes for all GE turbines which are on long-term service contracts. The turbines keep sending us data on wind condition, performance, demand and supply, among others. In some cases, we are also able to diagnose a fault, fix it and restart the turbine remotely. We have a command centre in Bengaluru which works round the clock and monitors the data generated from turbines installed in many countries in Asia.

The India technology Centre is also at the forefront of GE’s drive towards ‘digital twin’ technology. How helpful has it been?

Digital Twin technology is a massive productivity tool for us. In aviation, think of an engine that's flying in various climatic and weather conditions. In some places, the temperature may be high or the air density may be low. So the same engine which is flying in one part of the earth may behave very differently when it is flying elsewhere. So the maintenance needs of the engine will vary depending on the region it operates in. If we had a digital twin of that engine, that is, if knew how the engine has operated over its lifetime, we would know the amount of damage each part has accumulated. We can predict its maintenance based on how the engine has operated rather than the average (use) of the fleet. Using this technology, we can tell customers 30 days in advance if an engine needs to be taken to the workshop or requires a wash. 

Like the rest of the world, India, too, is warming to the idea of electric vehicles (EVs) and giving various incentives to industry as well as users. How are you planning to tap this opportunity?

When EVs become more prevalent, they will be charged from the grid. We are working on a set of technologies that are at the grid level. With the current technology, it takes a minimum of 7-8 hours to fully charge the battery of an electric car. In order to make EVs efficient, you either have to reduce the time taken for charging to around 15 minutes or swap the battery with a fully charged one at a charging station. And in order to reduce the charging time to 15 minutes, what you need is almost a power plant — otherwise the grid collapses. We are working on technologies around battery swapping as well as faster charging. We have developed an app which helps identify the ideal locations for charging stations so that it causes the least disruption to the grid. We are working with a few companies to do some pilots (in India) so that they can use our technology for setting up the charging infra.



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