Collaborating across disciplines is the key to breakthrough products
Archimedes leaping from his bath to shout “Eureka!” Newton plunked by the falling apple. Alexander Graham Bell uttering “Watson, come here” in history’s first phone call.
The time-honored image of scientific and technical breakthroughs tends to depict the heroic lone genius at a pivotal moment.
But in modern industry, breakthroughs in technical fields more typically involve teamwork and interdisciplinary collaboration. That is why ABB, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Corporate Research Center in Baden-Dättwil, Switzerland, has long cultivated collaborative exploration as an essential part of its product discovery and development process.
Consider the ABB Ability™ Smart Sensor, a compact, digitally enabled sensor and wireless communicator that gives Internet of Things capabilities to low-voltage electric motors.
These inexpensive smart sensors, developed by an interdisciplinary ABB research team in collaboration with the Swatch Group of Switzerland, can collect and transmit data on vibration, temperature and other variables of electrical motors. That enables operators from a central control office to monitor the motors and determine when they need servicing, heading off disruptive breakdowns.
The sensors can help reduce a motor’s downtime by up to 70 percent, extend the motor’s life by as much as 30 percent and curtail energy use by up to 10 percent. Those statistics are significant because, in industrial settings, as much as half of electricity consumed goes into electric motors. If a smart sensor could be placed on every one of the 300 million industrial motors in the world, the energy savings would be equal to the electrical output a 100 nuclear power plants.
No wonder that when ABB’s smart sensors hit the market in early 2017, the first supplies sold out in a matter of days. Getting to the point of a successful commercial product, however, required many good minds coming at the challenge from their own perspectives and expertise.
The story of the ABB Ability™ Smart Sensor is but one example of the collaborative R&D that occurs continually at the seven ABB Corporate Research Centers around the globe. Besides the center in Switzerland, the others are located in Germany, Poland, Sweden, India, China and the United States.
In all, ABB invests about $1.5 billion a year and employs more than 8,000 people in R&D, while also collaborating with more than 70 research universities and investing in innovative start-ups through its Technology Venture organization.
A history of turning ideas into products
For more than a 100 years, ABB has been a leader in engineering innovation across its various fields, which include electrification products, robotics and motion, industrial automation and power grids.
Among the many breakthroughs in its history, the company introduced the world’s first programmable industrial robot in 1974. Nearly 40 years later, it unveiled a hybrid high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) breaker that can interrupt the energy equivalent of an entire nuclear power plant in the time it takes for a honey bee to flap its wings once – a crucial capability that allows for the safe use and transfer of huge amounts of energy. In 2013, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cited the hybrid HVDC breaker as one of its top 10 breakthrough technologies for the year.
And in 2016, ABB gave the world a flash-charging system for electric buses that can refresh the batter in a matter of seconds, making flexible fleets of clean-energy mass-transportation vehicles feasible in an urban setting.
To encourage and recognize excellence in R&D, ABB has begun awarding a $300,000 research post-doctoral research grant for outstanding academic work in energy and automation. The prize, named in honor of the former ABB chairman Dr. Hubertus von Gruenberg, will be given every three years.
‘‘Innovation is the key to ABB’s success,‘‘ says Dr. René Cotting, the company’s head of operations, innovation and R&D. ‘‘Our goal is to create marketable products that are able to meet rapidly changing customer requirements in new ways, and can be introduced onto the market in a lasting, sustainable manner.‘‘
The search for smaller scale
When ABB researchers began developing the smart sensor in 2014, they already had prior ABB work to draw upon. The company had already developed monitoring systems for big mission-critical industrial motors. But at a cost of hundreds of dollars, those monitoring systems were too expensive to deploy on the dozens or hundreds of smaller, low-voltage motors that might be found in a modern factory or industrial campus. Even though all those low-voltage motors might be less critical, however, the failure of any one can result in plant downtime.
As engineers studied that challenge, other ABB researchers noted that the same type of sensors that are used for motor monitoring – accelerometers - are also built into smartphones to detect their movement in space. And so collaborative teams began conducting experiments for low-cost motor diagnosis via smartphones, using not only their accelerometers but the phones‘ microphones and the digital compasses known as magetometers.
Those tests were successful, proving that the accuracy of the available sensors was sufficient to draw conclusions on the health of a motor.
It wouldn’t be feasible to strap an expensive smartphone to each motor. What was needed was a low-cost device containing only the most relevant sensors. Because ABB does not manufacture smartphone sensors, the company went looking for a partner. Happily, another Swiss company was suited to the task: the Swatch Group, which owns EM Microelectronics.
The collaborative process now crossed corporate boundaries, with ABB engineers providing the electrical expertise and algorithms, while Swatch’s team focused on the sensing and communications capabilities.