Siân Green explains
If you were going to design a Web services site to benefit yourself, what would be your suggestions? And what functionality would you like to see on the site?” These are two questions that GE Power Systems asked its customers in the utility, industrial and oil and gas businesses as it began the development of a new e-commerce tool in late 1999.
Only a few months later, in May 2000, the company launched Outage Optimizer, an online tool enabling the operators of GE technology to manage their outage planning and asset optimization, important factors in the intensely competitive power generation markets of today.
Outage Optimizer is a Web-based application that enables GE’s customers to leverage GE’s resources to improve productivity and profitability while reducing the risk of missing something that should be addressed at the next planned outage event. It is the latest addition to GE Power System’s suite of e-commerce solutions, and an important part of the company’s much-publicised ‘brick-and-click’ strategy.
“Traditional methods of serving customers in the energy sector are rapidly changing, due in large part to the world energy market’s move toward deregulation which drives the need for greater productivity,” said Robert Nardelli, President and CEO of GE Power Systems. “E-commerce is accelerating the rate of this change in productivity and is providing us with additional opportunities such as Outage Optimizer, to serve our customers in the power sector.”
Outage Optimizer allows users to access technical information on their specific units as well as general information on GE’s worldwide fleet of gas and steam turbines. For certain products, users can benchmark a specific unit’s performance against similar equipment operating around the world.
An effective sales tool: GE is approaching $100 million of orders from this site since it was launched in May 2000
The tool is designed as a single application spanning GE’s full range of outage options, and, says GE, is organized around customer needs – a result of the customer survey during the planning stage. For the planning period prior to an outage, users can evaluate the service offerings for their equipment, configure paths for improved performance and profitability, access technical documentation, and request, review and accept proposals and then buy on-line.
In order to make this concept a reality, GE formed a team led by Leo Molina, project leader, Outage Optimizer. GE Energy Services developed this programme and is quickly integrating other Power Systems businesses to allow customers to view all their units with the same Web tool, whether they have heavy duty turbine-generators or pipeline turbines with compressors.
“With Outage Optimizer, GE’s maintenance planning and service solutions are available at the user’s fingertips, 24 hours per day, seven days per week,” said Molina.
A broad range of performance improvement packages are also available to users for increasing turbine output, efficiency, reliability or availability and reducing emissions. The application has an interactive quality, so that users logged on can plot how each of the various uprate packages will affect these parameters, and can also calculate a simple payback based on a specific unit’s operating conditions and changing market economics. Based on this, users are able to request a firm-priced quote on-line, and can then make a purchase.
The site is already a success. According to GE, it has taken nearly $100 million in orders since the site was launched at the end of May 2000. It already has over 500 external users at 200 customer sites, and says that this number is ramping up rapidly.
GE Power Systems worked with a research company to survey around 75 of its customers. Having asked them the two fundamental questions, the survey results came across as very clear: GE customers’ ‘critical to quality’ (CTQ) factors for the design of the on-line service Website were based on a number of business requirements:
- Customers wanted the Website to be designed around their needs and processes, rather than around how GE’s business is organized and operated
- Clients wanted the Website to be ‘personalized’, with full explanations of recommendations and options for their specific assets, rather than sales brochures and literature
- Security is of paramount importance, both in terms of the purchasing process and access to information on the site, i.e. equipment profile information and outage information
- Customers also wanted a tool to add rigour to their advanced planning process. To them, it was important to drive productivity and risk reduction based on the ability to access unit data in one place with the latest updates with a clear understanding of the recommendations and issues to address during a planned outage. This would allow a less experienced workforce to understand what should be addressed in the planning process.
Based on the results of the survey, GE Power Systems developed a customer-centric business model with the web site designed around the customer’s outage process. According to Jason Pring, Services Leader of GE Power Systems’ E-Business unit, the company is looking at developing similar Web-based applications for other processes, but decided to focus on the outage process as it felt that this would have the biggest impact for customers in the short term.
“In developing the business model for the Outage Optimizer,” says Pring, “we used rigorous Six Sigma methodology to understand the key steps that the customer takes in that outage planning process. We broke that down into tasks and timing to understand how and when customers address specific needs.”
The next step was to validate the model based on the results of the surveys and how GE believed their customer’s outage planning process progresses. To accomplish this, GE mocked up some screens, presented the Web concept to clients and collected specific feedback to implement in the early releases of the application. This stage of the development took place in February and March 2000.
Security was listed as top-priority by GE Power Systems’ customers in a survey
This input to the model gave GE Power Systems the validation and direction needed to focus on the first release of Outage Optimizer. The next step was to map the processes of collecting data from existing databases, presenting the data on the Website in a way that would allow users to make decisions, collecting customer-specific data to fulfil the proposal process and getting feedback from customers. All this had to be achieved with the security of the site in mind. “Only after this did we begin programming the site,” said Pring.
After mapping out the structure of the site, and based on direct customer involvement, GE Power Systems launched a Website based around a customer’s ‘outage event’. The design is independent of the structure of GE as an organization, and is personalized in the way that customers requested in the survey.
“By logging onto the site, customers can view unit-specific data in a secure environment that gives them the ability to improve their profitability and productivity as well as reduce the risk of missing items that should be addressed during their outage,” said Pring. “We had our first release of Outage Optimizer with its initial functionality on May 31, 2000.”
Using the site
Users can access the Outage Optimizer site through GE Power Systems’ main Internet portal. Users are asked to either login, using a user ID and password, or to register. New users are prompted to complete a registration form with certain information – this is part of the site’s security process. According to Pring, no-one can access the site or register until they have been authorized by GE’s local sales and service team.
The registration process actually takes up to two or three days. A structured process is initiated to verify the customer and user and to ensure that the user is valid for the specific customer. Any customer is able to get a list of their current registered users at any time.
“Currently, only GE turbine owners or persons authorized by the turbine owners may become Outage Optimizer registered users,” said Pring. “After you become a valid user, we e-mail your authorization and send you some more information, including a CD, to educate you on specific site functionality. There is also an on-line tutorial to give you the ability to walk through this site in detail.”
The Website is designed around GE Power Systems’ customers outage planning process for their specific assets. On logging in, a customer follows a specific pathway involving the following steps:
- Chooses a site
- Picks an existing outage or creates a new outage event
- Chooses the specific assets that will be in the outage scope
- Updates and validates the technical and commercial data in an equipment or site profile to support the proposal generation and responsiveness.
Once these specific characteristics are defined, the site gives customer’s unit specific data to:
- Review packages to improve output, heat rate, emissions, reliability and availability
- Benchmark their unit performance versus the worldwide GE fleet and perform a feasibility proforma to understand the payback of packages (for part of the gas turbine fleet only in Release 1.0)
- Find, review and print technical papers that apply to the unit in question
- Review recommended and optional workscopes for On-Site Services, Inspections, and Repairs and Parts based on the outage type identified
- Request firm price,time and material or budgetary quotes.
As the power market continues to drive customers to add new capacity, improve efficiency and reduce their emissions, this Web-based tool allows them to view all the packages that could apply to their specific unit. To meet these customer demands, GE continues to invest in new products by applying technology advancements to its existing fleet, and Outage Optimizer allows customers to view each of these offerings to improve their profitability.
In addition, with deregulation of the electricity industry continuing around the world, many customers want to understand how they rank in terms of performance among their peers. Outage Optimizer gives customers the ability to view normalized data from similar model types to benchmark their specific unit output and heat rate versus the fleet mean and the fleet leader. Because of the sensitive nature of this type of data, no unit specific data is given for fleet comparisons.
Once the benchmark is identified, customers can then select different uprate packages to plot their path towards fleet leadership in terms of output and heat rate. In the process of doing that, GE allows the customer to use a very high level feasibility pro forma. By putting in five key pieces of economic data, they can see a high level payback for each of the uprate packages.
“Every customer evaluates differently, so this is only for feasibility purposes to get them into a range of payback periods,” said Pring. “If one or more of the packages looks promising, the customer is only one click away from a more detailed document on the package. If something has a longer payback, they don’t waste their time in terms of asking for detailed information on the package; they can just hone in on where their quick hits for profitability lie.”
Users can access technical information on their specific units, and benchmark their performance against GE’s worldwide fleet of similar units
Customers also are able to take a look at unit-specific technical documentation to understand what applies, when these were issued, the urgency of what is being requested, as well as view or print each document and capture when one of the requests has been completed. There are also fleet-specific documents or papers that GE may have presented at technical conferences available on-line.
Access to this technical documentation reduces their risk, and gives them an opportunity to see if they have overlooked anything that should be implemented in their upcoming outage. It also helps customers in terms of their productivity, giving them on-line access to this information 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the year. They can get the latest documentation available from GE on-line at the click of a mouse instead of getting it through the mail.
Another function of the site is that it allows customers to review recommended and optional scopes from the GE portfolio. Users can look at recommended and optional on-site services, at GE-recommended and optional inspections and repairs, and they can also request a parts quote for operational, consumable and capital parts for that specific piece of equipment. “In the process, we capture those requests for quotes on any uprate packages as well as any technical information letters or any other technical documentation,” said Pring.
The next step for the user gives them the option to purchase goods, according to Pring: “After the customer has configured work scopes, in this outage planning process you can request a specific quote, budgetary or firm. Those requirements are sent to a centralized GE team to begin the process of compiling a proposal which then goes back to the customer on line for review, print and buy.
“Our sales and service teams are integrated into this process and many times are working with the customer in a collaborative environment to create the request.”
A question of security
“Security for our customers is a very big CTQ, both in the information sharing as well as the buying process,” said Pring. In addition to the rigorous registration and authorization process prior to gaining access to the site, after gaining access as a user,Outage Optimizer provides various authentication technologies to identify users when they access applications that provide client or vendor-specific data.
Each user is also checked to ensure that they are authorized to access the information. This prevents users from different companies from seeing each other’s data and allows users within a company only to see the information that they are authorized to access. In addition, encryption technologies are used to protect sensitive information that is exchanged between the user and the GE applications.
Long term plans
GE is continuing to increase the functionality within the outage planning process to address the requirements of its customers as originally expressed in the survey and as subsequently gathered. “We value our customer feedback very highly and we have designed in the ability to continually collect feedback from each page on the Website,” commented Pring. “This allows the users to help define our functionality for future releases as well as increase the ease of use of the site.”
GE is now in the process of integrating two other GE applications into Outage Optimizer: GEParts Edge and Customer Status – this is targeted to be complete by the end of the year, and will further enhance the site. “This further enhances our objective of providing a seamless experience for the customer,” said Pring.
“In the surveys, the customers were very clear that they did not want a repair site, a services site, a parts site, a technical documentation site, and so on, that are not integrated. They are asking for one application designed around their outage planning process to see the total portfolio and breadth of GE’s applications.”