Bazmi Husain, Chief Technology Officer of ABB Group, shares his views on the trends impacting his business and solutions necessary to leverage those trends. By Mark Johnston
Q: What are the top trends you are watching that will have the biggest impact on ABB?
Bazmi Husain (BH): ABB’s business sells into three key sectors, which are the utilities, service industries, and transportation. We offer our solutions in power and automation to these industries. What we are seeing now is an unprecedented shift in both these segments. These shifts are driven by a combination of technology innovation and societal concerns. Societal concerns include environmental issues, for example. An additional impact is that new technology has also brought about a change in business models.
Electrical networks, for instance, have, since they came out, scaled in size, but not in structure. A move from centralised generation to a more decentralised approach is also having an impact. Predictable generation is moving towards a generation that is more variable. This is giving rise to new needs, such as electrical storage in the system, more complex topologies, such as microgrids, nanogrids, and so on.
On the automation side the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) or as we call it the Internet of Things, Services and People because we believe the value of IoT would be delivered in the industrial context when you combine it with services. Services are not just the traditional services. I am referring to services in the larger context. It could be services that leverage the interconnect between different parts of the value chain together, not just optimising performance, but optimising business value chains.
The IoT is driven a lot by increased sensing capabilities but also greater communications, easier storage and CPU availability.
Robotics is also a major area for us. We introduced industrial robotics in 1974 and we are seeing a significant shift here too. Collaborative robots or co-bots as they have become know are a growth area for us. Two years ago we introduced YuMi, which is our first collaborative robot that came onto the market. It is designed to be safe and is designed to work in close proximity to others humans. We are also seeing a greater use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and a greater use of sensors.
Q: What are the priorities of ABB’s R&D efforts?
BH: First of all, the priorities are on the power side as well as the automation side. We intend on keeping ABB ahead of the competition by investing in our research.
Transportation is increasingly becoming electric. In Geneva, electric buses would charge when they stop for passengers to get in or out. In 15 seconds it charges at a very high power, 600kW, to give it enough energy so it can go to the next stop and it does not need any overhead lines that can become an eyesore on the city. The city is using our technology to do these things. We are looking at the transformation that is happening
In marine, we do electrical propulsion. We supply the electric drives. We also do the automation to keep the ship steady and moving. We can combine that with the weather data and the type of cargo that is being carried, and the real-time pricing from the fuel. Depending on the cargo and the weather conditions a route can be plotted for the ship. If the cargo happens to be bananas then you may want to get to your destination as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if you are carrying fine China then you may want to travel the smoothest ride possible. Knowing the weather data and optimising that in real-time you can avoid bad weather, so you do not have to spend too much on packaging. These are just some examples that are coming out of our R&D.
Q: Tell me more about Ability. Is this your platform for bringing everything together?
BH: We have had several solutions like this that we offer onto the market. These solutions were all developed independently by different business units. For example, when we talk about the IoT, the concept is not new. In fact, if you go to any process plant and you see what a Distributed Control System (DCS) does, it is very similar to the concept behind IoT.
Two things have changed, however, one is that we can now connect to the wider world, outside the process plant. The second thing is the sensing capability has gone up tremendously. This is because of new sensors that are coming out. It has expanded in scope but fundamentally the concepts are the same.
We have many digital solutions and we have something like over 70,000 control systems and network management systems and more than 70 million connected devices out there. To handle this network we have brought in ABB Ability. This is a platform that will be used to collect all of the data from ABB’s offerings. It is a common platform. It will be used across the various businesses. It will allow connectivity to the cloud in a very seamless way. ABB Ability will act as an umbrella for all our offerings that are digital in nature and it can participate in the digital world. What does all this mean to our customers? It means they get a consistent, faster, solution.
A lot of technology that is coming from the cloud side are actually coming from the IT industries. We work together with Microsoft as a strategic partner. We use their offering as a platform as a service, rather than using them as an infrastructure as a service, like some of our competitors have done.