BIG Data

Our cover story concerns Big Data —— the idea that better sensors, higher powered computers and data analytics can be combined to produce a step change in equipment design, operations, maintenance and reliability.

The first reaction of many towards this topic is that this is just the latest wave of hype. Having been involved in IT since the 1990s, I can understand that viewpoint. However, dismissal of Big Data without proper inspection is a mistake. Some of these heavily hyped concepts will prove meaningful in the long run.

Examples include the Internet and cloud computing (witness IBM prime time ads about it, and my wife’s hairdresser believing – true story – that his iPhone has an actual cloud somewhere up in the sky above him that physically moves around with him and keeps all his data). Naysayers, of course, will point to the Y2K bug and even perhaps IGCC as much hyped topics that either proved a complete bust or never quite got off the ground.

But here’s why I believe Big Data deserves coverage. The very best minds in the turbomachinery hardware universe have been working ceaselessly for decades to improve turbine efficiency. They have done very well but the ground being gained via hardware upgrades is producing small incremental gains. Efficiency levels are eking upwards past 60% combined cycle, but it is relatively slow progress.

So perhaps another – or at least a parallel – approach is needed. Controls vendors (and many of the turbine OEMs, these days, can be counted in that camp) have been making dramatic technological leaps of late. Just compare controls from ten years ago to those of today and you’ll get the idea. They are being flanked by a revolution in IT which packs more and more processing punch into a smaller and smaller space. And the speed with which data can be transmitted coupled with advances in analytics open the door to real-time evaluation of oceans of data. That has got to lead somewhere in the long run.

Let’s look at an analogy: cars of the fifties and sixties were largely mechanical. Electronics has been gaining steadily to the point where the modern car can park itself, brake in an emergency, detect driver dope-off, navigate to a destination and keep a real-time record of MPH, fuel consumption and more. Getting to that point led designers up a few dead-ends. Hokey GPS systems, automatic windows that continually break down and alarms that go off without provocation are a few of the missteps. But a high-end car has integrated software, electronics and a huge jump in compute power into a miracle of engineering (watch your car repair guy operating the next time you take the vehicle into the shop – most of the time, he plugs a computer into the engine and a diagnostic program tells him what’s faulty in minutes).

So our cover story attempts to tread a fine line between painting the potential of Big Data in turbomachinery while laying out actual applications today that show some of the advances being made. At the same time, our Myth Busters were given free rein to poke holes in the pro-Big Data arguments and did a masterful job of that. The many problems they lay out are the areas being actively worked on by OEMs, control vendors and sensor manufacturers, as well as a growing legion of IT partners.

Contentious climate

The editorial in the last issue entitled “Contentious climate” sparked many letters to the editor. Here are a few examples:

“I really liked your ‘Contentious Climate’ letter in Turbomachinery International last month. The world would be a much better place if we actually tried to solve problems rather than continue the ‘Hatfield vs. McCoy’ war.”

-Eric Ford, Graphite Metallizing Corp.

“I was disappointed with the tone struck in this editorial. In my view you have fallen into the even handedness trap that journalism sometimes gets driven into. I realize that even handedness, middle ground and harmony sound like nice things. However, if one side of a discussion has a tenuous grip on reality, trying to maintain neutrality is at best pointless and at worst obscures the boundaries of where the debate should focus.

So giving equal weight to the climate change vs. anti-climate change lobby on this topic is analogous to giving equal weight to the positions of pro Obama supporters vs. the Obama birthers. The effect of anthropogenic CO2 emissions on the climate is basically settled science, just as the validity of Obama being president is settled. We need to move on from there. The more important question is what mitigation steps (if any), should we be taking to tackle climate change. Let’s take the higher road and help move the debate forward to where it needs to be.”

-Simon Bradshaw, a professional engineer based in the U.S.

“Your editorial entitled ‘Contentious Climate’ was insightful, well written, and on-point. It is disheartening that you had to deal with political fallout from the publication of an article on climate change (regardless of one’s opinions herein). But the way you approached the issue exercised sincerity, discretion, honor, understanding and wisdom. Keep up the great work with this publication. It remains my favorite to read by far (there really isn’t even a close 2nd).”

-David R. Pincince, Marketing Manager & Industrial Sales Manager, Turbocam, Inc.