GE’s Chief Marketing Officer Talks Innovation, Partnerships

By Scott Kirsner |  April 29, 2014

General Electric Chief Marketing Officer Beth Comstock was at Harvard Business School yesterday as the opening speaker for the school’s Digital Initiative Summit. Her short talk touched on some of the trends affecting manufacturing that GE is working to understand and leverage. (Comstock oversees GE Ventures, which we wrote about last month.)

  • “Hardware still matters. Making stuff is still pretty exciting.”
  • GE is trying to take advantage of “the intersection of software and hardware — the atom and the bit — big iron and big data.”
  • Comstock talked about “50 billion machines coming online,” getting connected to what has been called the “industrial internet,” and how GE is working to use data and data services to add value to products like jet engines or an MRI. One opportunity she mentioned: predictive analytics and maintenance, to avoid airline delays due to engine repairs.
  • Comstock says many cloud-based software providers are built on the “pay-as-you-go” revenue model. Comstock predicted another model we’ll see is “pay as you save.”
  • “We’ve been smitten with the lean startup movement, and we’ve worked with Eric Ries. We are trying to embed that back into GE with something we call FastWorks. What happens sometimes in big companies is you get slowed down for the art of perfection. What you learn from a startup is focus and speed.”
  • Comstock says GE is working with one startup, Arizona-based vehicle manufacturer Local Motors, to develop a micro-factory in Louisville, Kentucky. That venture will involve “an engineering community outside of GE, a digital platform, married with the engineers inside of GE.” It’s a way to “figure out new ways to take on really vexing engineering problems, create limited-run [products], and test them in the market before we scale them really big.” (Louisville is the headquarters for GE’s home appliance division.)
  • She mentioned the Aros air conditioner, designed in collaboration with the inventor/designer community Quirky (where Comstock serves on the board.) “They’ve been able to harness a community of inventors that comes up with ideas, they’ve worked with GE and our technical capabilities, and they’re a great speed and design machine. We launched a new air conditioner together, the Aros. It’s the world’s first smart air conditioner.”
  • GE worked with a site called GrabCAD, which brings together more than a million engineers, to seek solutions to problems that GE’s own engineers might not have the solution to — or simply might not have the time to address. “Is there someone somewhere else in the world who can help solve it? There’s a bracket that holds a jet engine in place, and it weighs a lot. Anything you can do to reduce weight reduces fuel consumption. Our engineers are focused on different things; this was pretty much a commoditized part. Thousands of entries later, from both aeronautics engineers and LEGO enthusiasts, we got about 25 great ideas, and winnowed our way down to one. It was someone out of Indonesia, who is still in school, and had no engineering background. He was able to take out 85 percent of the weight of this part, and create a new way of thinking using 3D printing and modeling that, frankly, wasn’t going to happen inside the walls of GE.”