With a vast global network of production facilities ranging anywhere from 25 to over 100 years old, and a production staff of over 140,000 people around the world, General Motors generates massive amounts of data every day.

As the cars it produces become ever more intelligent, and as new production technologies like dedicated additive manufacturing systems in all its factories, new developments in collaborative robotics on the shop floor, and specialized new metal forming innovations underway, those data volumes are growing fast.

So how does GM view the potential of all this data for the kind of products it makes and how it will make them in the years ahead?

“It’s infinite,” predicted GM’s Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing, Gerald Johnson, in conversation with MLC Co-founder David R. Brousell during the opening keynote session of the 2020 Virtual MLC Rethink Summit this week.

As the recent winner of the MLC’s 2020 Manufacturing Leader of the Year Award, Johnson was talking about GM’s Manufacturing Vision and its own journey to Manufacturing 4.0.

Gerald Johnson, GM’s EVP of Global Manufacturing and 2020 MLC Manufacturing Leader of the Year

“There’s no real destination to our smart manufacturing journey,” continued Johnson, “because the technology keeps growing. It’s really about grabbing and integrating what allows us to move forward from where we are today, and then looking out as we start strategizing and planning our future to make sure we are always able to incorporate what’s available to us.”

Understanding and using data more effectively is a key part of that journey. “I think the technology will help people make better decisions and help make decisions faster,” he added. “We will be able to do things better in a digital world, shrinking the time it takes to go from idea to execution, and shrinking the time it takes to move from equipment on the floor to full operation.

“It’s about understanding how much we can put into the digital world with enough accuracy that it allows us to predict better, allows us to prevent better, and allows us to move from an idea to a tangible, physical asset in a highly efficient execution faster. That’s where I think the greatest opportunity is.”

To help drive this digital ambition, GM has a rapidly expanding data analytics organization where analysts spend significant amounts of time on GM’s plant floors asking front line management and operators exactly what problems they are trying to solve. “Then they are coming back to us and saying, ‘I think we can help you with this by aggregating these sets of data’. So, it’s a marriage of the experts who understand data techniques, and the plant guys who understand the problem. Then they are collaborating together in workshops to find new ways that data can help to solve things,” he said.

But for Johnson, that’s only the beginning of harnessing the potential of all the data that GM is now collecting. “The reason I say it is infinite is because I don’t know the question that I will need to ask a year from now, or five years from now. But if I have an infinite data set, when I get to the right question, I don’t have to create all the connectivity and create all the data gathering we need. All I have to do is to find the right tools to extract that data in very intelligent ways.

“So, it’s infinite”, he concluded. “There’s millions of bits of data that we are now collecting every day that I don’t even know I need yet. But I’m grateful to IT team for finding efficient ways for us to keep it, so when I figure out the question I want to ask, it’s there so we can start manipulating it to answer questions that we aren’t smart enough to know we need to answer yet. To me, that’s exciting.”

“It’s like looking up into the universe and trying to count the stars,” he explained. “You can’t. But it’s amazing that it’s out there.