California State University (CSU) engineering students are invited to participate annually in the General Electric Digital (GE) Predix Competition, in San Ramon, Calif. In July, eight CSUN engineering and computer science students placed third in the competition, with the guidance of advisor and electrical and computer engineering professor Vijay Bhatt.
CSUN’s College of Engineering and Computer Science was granted $10,000 by GE Predix to fund their project for the competition. Predix is a cloud-based [data analytics] software.
The aim of the competition is to drive innovation, create opportunities for the students to learn about new technologies, and engage engineering and computer science programs across the CSU in the computer engineering industry.
THE BUSINESS PLAN
Bhatt and the students wanted to create a unique business plan for the campus. The team decided to design a software tool that could help the existing chiller system be more efficient for the air conditioning on campus. A chiller system is a water cooling system used for air conditioning plants, using cold water and air, according to Bhatt.
“The big water chillers are used for the cooling systems on campus,” Bhatt said. “There are six of them, and the electricity bill for that comes in at hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
“The issue aligned with the campus’ sustainability mission and should make a difference,” Bhatt continued. “This project was very interesting [because] we tried to predict the usage of water chillers on campus.”
The team brainstormed about how to make chillers more sustainable by partnering with staff and faculty from the CSUN Institute for Sustainability, to find ways to use data analytics and weather information. The sustainability staff provided historical and current data about use of chillers on campus and other vital parameters. Next, the engineering students created an algorithm, the blueprint for writing a program, which the students applied in Predix.
When the software program regurgitated the data, the CSUN team determined which chillers should be used and how they could be optimized to reduce electricity use, according to Bhatt.
The team discovered that if the university used their model, they could save CSUN approximately $72,000 for excessive usage.
PUSHING THE LIMITS
“Our third-place win shows the strength of our computer science and engineering department,” said computer science major and Predix team member Roberto Gonzalez. “[We] pushed the limits to optimize the chiller system, and that ensured our win for CSUN.”
It was CSUN’s first time reaching the top three — and a $2,500 prize — out of eight CSU campuses.
Haiping Chen, a CSUN computer science major, noted the challenges of delving into the university’s chiller electricity bill.
“We were looking at … how long [it would have taken] the school to equalize the money they are investing in the system,” he said. “We presented [our research] to a panel of judges, and they were impressed at how well we budgeted. If we invested a certain amount of money, we always asked what the benefits were.”
The team spent three months preparing for the competition, and the students devoted many hours of time outside class learning how to use the Predix software. It paid off with the top-three finish, prize money and a tour of GE Digital’s office. Organizers also gave each student participant a “souvenir” light bulb.
The CSUN students noted that they got a laugh out of TSA security officers when they passed through airport security, each with a lightbulb, on their way back to Los Angeles.
CSUN’s GE Predix project will continue during the 2017-18 academic year, when team members aim to create an app for chiller management and the campus’ Physical Plant Management.