ABB leads the way to the autonomous industrial future

In today’s world of unprecedented technological change and digitalization, ABB is writing the future towards industrial autonomous systems that are able to adapt and even learn in changing situations. These new systems will result in improved productivity, energy efficiency and safety.

ABB is driving the development of increasingly sophisticated autonomous technologies, which will transform industry by enabling unprecedented visibility and control over machines, plants and systems. And ABB will continue to deliver proven value for customers with deep domain expertise, integrated solutions and the ABB Ability™ digital offering.

Investing in factories of the future and autonomous shipping

As a pioneering technology leader in digital industries, ABB is investing $150 million to build the world’s most advanced and automated robotics factory in Shanghai. The new facility will feature an R&D center where scientists and engineers from ABB's Corporate Research arm work to accelerate cutting-edge industrial AI innovations.

ABB is already running one of the world's most advanced Factories of the Future. ABB's Industrie 4.0 factory in Heidelberg, Germany manufactures circuit breakers. The factory uses advanced robotics, connectivity and digitalization to achieve efficiencies that enable the production of three times as many product variants as was previously possible.

As autonomous technologies move forward, the maritime sector is one of the market opportunities. ABB recently took a major step forward in autonomous shipping. In a groundbreaking remote trial, the world’s first for an existing passenger ferry, the ice-class Suomenlinna II ferry was remotely piloted through the Helsinki harbor. This serves as a potent proof point that human oversight of vessels from anywhere is achievable and is a stepping-stone toward a future of fully autonomous container ships.

Suomenlinna II ferry remotely piloted through the Helsinki harbor
Suomenlinna II ferry remotely piloted through the Helsinki harbor

ABB is pursuing other areas where autonomous systems can deliver value. In the oil & gas sector, which has a critical safety component, reducing the number of people on site for safety reasons is critical. Autonomous systems, enabling remote operation, would help achieve this goal. ABB is also taking mining to the next level with a roadmap of increasingly advanced automation for real-time process optimization. As mines become more automated, digitalized and connected, the ultimate payoff could be fully autonomous mines that operate with no people underground.

ABB empowers digital industries

Across all industries, the ABB Ability™ digital offering is well positioned for taking autonomous technologies further. ABB Ability™ solutions draw upon data from smart sensors and apply sophisticated software to continually assess the state of systems and to provide predictive warnings. These capabilities will be a key enabler of autonomous industrial plants.

The growing global network of ABB Ability™ Collaborative Operations Centers points the way to the future by providing data-driven decision support – making action recommendations that people sign off on –which is considered the first step towards fully autonomous operations. Smart sensors and operation-critical systems located on site transmit data on the health and performance of equipment to the Collaborative Operations Center. There, software performs advanced data analytics. The results are assessed by ABB domain experts in collaboration with customers, resulting in recommendations that uncover potential problems, advise on preventive maintenance, and determine ways to improve performance. The information gleaned from these global operations will help ABB's researchers better understand the dynamics and nuances of automated decision making. This will provide valuable input towards the development of systems capable of ever-greater autonomy.

Leadership in autonomous systems requires a broad-based commitment to industrial AI. Here, ABB stays at the cutting edge both through its internal research and by partnering with AI startups through its venture-capital arm, ABB Technology Ventures. Internally, scientists and engineers at the nine ABB Corporate Research centers in seven countries are hard at work on industrial AI.

Autonomous technology will amplify human potential

Importantly, autonomous systems and industrial AI will revolutionize work not by replacing humans, but by augmenting human cognitive capabilities to amplify our potential. We can envision that future from what we already see today: Leading-edge automation systems already enable many operations and processes to run without human intervention under normal conditions. This has allowed people to effectively "up-skill," by shifting their focus to the more complex and unstructured tasks.

In the Factory of the Future, autonomous systems will assist operators in making better decisions in a timely manner. This will free expert personnel from mundane, repetitive tasks, enabling them to focus on higher-value activities. For the near term, people and autonomous systems will partner, with humans making the final decision.

In the autonomous Factory of the Future, people will work side by side with collaborative robots. The combination of autonomous systems, industrial AI, and collaborative robots like ABB's YuMi® will enable ABB's customers to manufacture the wider range of personalized and customized products that will be required to succeed in the Globalization 4.0 era. And they'll do it more efficiently, economically and – most importantly – in an environmentally compatible manner, which utilizes our precious resources without consuming the world.

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