Electric, digital and connected – with ABB on the way to a smarter future

ABB Marine & Ports has established “Electric. Digital. Connected.” as a vision for the maritime industry. Guido Jouret, Chief Digital Officer of ABB, acknowledges these “big three” as the way forward for the maritime industry – and for all of society.

There is a lot of talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with electrification, digitalization and connectivity converging across industries.

Electrification is the logical choice for future power systems. Compared to mechanical systems, electricity enables more flexible solutions that require less maintenance. It also allows power to be applied more precisely, including installing more power in smaller spaces.

Digitalization enables small-scale efficiency, but it also helps keep costs under control if we want to expand the scope of an application or operation. The level of complexity no longer has to increase when scaling up; operating 100 things does not have to mean that systems become 100 times more complex.

Connectivity has been primarily a consumer-driven trend, enabled by mobile and broadband technologies, but these days it is becoming well established in the industrial space. Buyers of equipment increasingly realize that those who build the machines can also help optimize operations from remote locations, and industrial customers want that help.

There are also examples of industrial digital technology migrating into the consumer space, such as GPS. This phenomenon is a lot less frequent, but still very significant. Back in the 1970s and 1980s there was a lot of government spending on military digital technology. These were the early investments that eventually gave birth to Silicon Valley, and the pendulum of innovation swung from the industrial to the consumer space.

We already have an example of this in ABB Marine & Ports, where our ABB Ability™ Marine Advisory System – OCTOPUS, originally designed to help guide some of the biggest ships in the world, is now being applied to the SeaBubbles urban water taxi concept. This shows that industrial digital innovations are highly scalable, and that opens the door for application in many different spaces.

Planet 4.0

We are in the middle of massive change, and we are seeing it all across society. The planetary operating system is being revised. How we manage food processing, water and energy supply, manufacturing of goods or moving people – all these areas are being reinvented using digital technology.

ABB is well positioned to be a major player in this ongoing development, and we are experiencing growing momentum. As an indicator of this, the number of applicants for employment in ABB has doubled in the past year. Working with digital technology in a maker company like ABB is different than working in a software company. We get to help solve issues of sustainability, transportation, and electrification. People can see the impact of what they do on society. In my opinion, this is the reason we are able to attract employees in a highly competitive environment.

With this growing interest in doing things that make a difference, I believe the time is now for industrials to get involved and drive the development of the things that matter for everyone. In the mobility segment, ABB is the title sponsor of Formula E racing, the fastest electric powered racing cars on the planet. This may seem frivolous at first glance, but it is about much more than just fast cars. It is about the electrification of transportation.

Racing can serve as an incubator for innovation. ABB FIA Formula E Championship racing puts unimaginable stress on the cars and the power systems. The technology has to deal with heat and loads far beyond those in commercial vehicles. Participating in the ABB FIA Formula E Championship allows the industrial partners to bring this advanced technology into the consumer space at a much faster pace.

While technology in traditional Formula 1 is maturing, there is still a lot of innovation left in ABB FIA Formula E Championship. One clear example of this is that next season they will need only one car to finish a race, instead of the two they have used since the start of the Championship just four years ago. Also the fact that they race in a city or urban environment, not on isolated tracks, makes electric transportation visible and accessible for everybody.

No end in sight

I honestly don’t see any horizon for the potential of electric, digital, and connected. The revolution is different this time because it’s not just one thing. By contrast to previous disruptions like steam power or electrification, the Fourth Industrial Revolution involves multiple elements. In fact it can be difficult to articulate the current shift, because it is made up of so many things. Digitalization, connectivity and cloud computing are all converging, with machine learning and artificial intelligence amplifying their impact. Sensors are getting smaller and big data is getting bigger. Augmented and virtual reality technologies continue to provide previously unattainable perspectives.

But despite these advances, any machine we can make today remains relatively primitive, compared to human brain. We are basically trying to make a model of the brain, and what has been achieved so far might even be called baby steps. Computer models have the potential to be a million times better than today, not just faster and cheaper.

Looking ahead to the “next big thing”, I hope we rediscover that small is beautiful. Industrial technology in the 19th and 20th centuries was all about making things bigger and achieving efficiency of scale. Now digital technology enables efficiency at any level. 3D printing is a good example of small-scale efficiency, delivering tailor made components at the point of consumption. By moving bits, not atoms, we are reinventing the way we run the modern economy.

In a way we are going back to our roots, by enabling smaller, closer, and smarter solutions. Only 30 per cent of our planet remains jungle and rain forest. If we want to avoid eating into undeveloped land, and clearly we do, cities will have to absorb the bulk of population growth. That means we will need to think and work in new ways to create dense, but sustainable and attractive urban solutions. I believe that innovative use of electric, digital and connected technologies will be the key to finding smarter ways to manage our new future.

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