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Sandhouse Rail Group: Joe Becker

CNBC named Chicago-based BAC member Uptake Technologies one of the Top 50 Disruptors in the tech startup space in both 2017 and 2018. This is remarkable considering the firm just launched in 2014 and many of its clients are in heavy industry and transportation sectors, including airlines, railroads, oil and gas production.

Joe Becker, Director of Uptake’s Center for Rail Excellence, made a presentation to Northwestern University Transportation Center’s (NUTC) Sandhouse Rail Group on June 7. Becker described how Uptake’s machine learning, big data and analytics on a SaaS platform (together, an Internet of Things (IoT) approach), are helping the rail sector optimize performance, reduce failures and enhance safety for its most valuable assets, locomotive engines.

Uptake combines its IoT expertise with its clients’ inherently deep knowledge and experience with heavy industry and equipment.  In rail, Uptake has developed machine diagnostics and predictive analytics for locomotives that can sound the alarm about likely failures far in advance of their actual occurrence. It does this by placing sensors on every piece of equipment on a locomotive. Those sensors transmit data on failure prediction, anomaly detection, and fuel management to data scientists at Uptake who track the condition of assets on an around-the-clock basis. Becker told his June 7 audience, “This has fundamentally changed the way in which repairs are scheduled, by routing the locomotives to a repair shop well before it fails. It doesn't’t have to be in the shop and out of commission for six days for routine maintenance and expected repairs anymore. In just three years, we’ve been able to show our Class 1 railroad clients how our data analytics can very quickly increase reliability and productivity.” Uptake has also added a weather forecasting tool to its toolbox, which enhances its analysis by predicting when heavy snow and rain may hamper freight train performance or when wind speeds drop, severely limiting energy-producing windmill productivity.

“The freight rail industry has been a great partner,” says Becker. “Many long-time employees have a lot of equipment know-how in their heads.” Uptake talks with those experts at length to extract information about how their machines work, what can go wrong, and how long it takes to fix it. “One of first things we do with our rail clients is to clean up and standardize the data that has been gathered by each repair shop over time.”

Uptake moved to further strengthen data reliability in early 2018 when it acquired Albuquerque-based Asset Performance Technologies (APT), a preventive maintenance consulting company that developed the world's biggest database of industrial equipment maintenance needs and causes of equipment failures. The database includes information on nearly 800 pieces of equipment across numerous industries, including power generation, mining and steel-making and has catalogued some 55,000 conditions that can identify when industrial equipment is about to fail.

Becker expects that IoT technologies and analyses, that Uptake and others can provide, will soon be the new normal for rail and other industrial clients. “Rail and heavy industry have done things the same way for a very long time, but changes are now occurring very rapidly,” Becker reports. This is great news, he says, noting that a study of the manufacturing sector by the American Society for Quality found that the “digital transformation” currently underway will add $500 billion in productivity to the global economy in the next five years.

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