Partnerships with startups speed delivery of digital tools

Partnerships with startups speed delivery of digital tools

Collaboration with external technology leaders lets ABB deliver customer solutions faster. ABB’s partnership with RE’FLEKT, a Munich-based augmented reality (AR) company, brings ABB expertise directly to customers, when and where they need it most, via Big Data, analytics and visualization.

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Kim Fenrich ABB Industrial Automation Zürich, Switzerland,; Dirk Schart RE’FLEKT Munich, Germany

For ABB, the future lies in open innovation that focuses on collaboration with external partners – universities, research organizations, startups and the like. Consequently, the company drives external collaboration in a structured way, via ABB channels such as ABB Technology Ventures (ATV) and SynerLeap. SynerLeap provides technology resources and expertise to ignite innovation and growth across industries while ATV provides financial and business-model support. These two bodies complement and leverage each other: ATV has already invested in some SynerLeap partners, with more to follow. The SynerLeap/ATV setup has increased ABB’s attractiveness to the startup community worldwide.

Collaboration partnerships also allow ABB to learn more about emerging technologies, where they can be best applied (eg, high-value use cases) and how they can be leveraged to solve customers’ problems →01.

01 Collaboration with external companies that are experts in their field shortens time to market.
01 Collaboration with external companies that are experts in their field shortens time to market.

RE’FLEKT, an AR technology company based in San Francisco and Munich, is one prominent Synerleap partner with whom significant successful technological progress has been made. RE’FLEKT’s world-leading technology enables any business or industry to create their own in-house AR or mixed reality (MR) applications. ABB is collaborating with RE’FLEKT to introduce AR to a wide range of applications, beginning with visual remote support, service, maintenance and training.

Bringing data together
Historically, industrial automation data resided in separate, isolated systems and networks, forcing operators to look at a multiplicity of screens or dashboards if they wanted to evaluate the status of a particular piece of equipment or process. As industry started to move through the digitalization life cycle, these separate systems were connected so that data could be aggregated and associated. The challenge then was to place all this data in a context where it becomes meaningful and useful. Such a context is supplied by AR. Using AR, the user can now look at a device, identify it precisely, visualize all the available data associated with the device, apply advanced analytics, attach Internet of Things (IoT) data and, ultimately, apply artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to it to derive even more information. This means AR can be used in every phase of the equipment or plant life cycle.

Taking a wider view
AR is already delivering value in maintenance, training and service, especially via ABB Ability™ Collaborative Operations Centers →02. The next steps are to implement the technology in areas where the potential value of combining data is high, such as in design, assembly and operations.

02 The ABB Ability™ platform and cloud infrastructure let the customer securely integrate and aggregate data, apply predictive analytics and generate insights.
02 The ABB Ability™ platform and cloud infrastructure let the customer securely integrate and aggregate data, apply predictive analytics and generate insights.

In these areas, the more data that is brought together, the more meaningful the aggregate becomes. This data allows smarter, more- informed decisions to be made. For example, connecting design data to operations data makes it possible to compare current operating conditions with expected performance. It could be that operations are running as per design, but the design data was wrong. If so, the operational data can be rolled back into the original as-built drawings to amend the design and ensure future iterations are founded on correct, real-world data.

Underpinning the entire life cycle with a single source of accurate data – and overlaying 3-D or live data with AR support – enables more ­accessible training and better and faster plant support. In addition, remote support can be simplified, limiting the need to send service engineers to site.

Digital twins
A digital twin is a virtual representation of an object or a system that has operational awareness. A plant will be represented by many, interconnected digital twins, allowing operators to zoom in to a specific location and obtain comprehensive real-time status information, enabling problems to be solved faster.

The more data that is available to the digital twin, from the design phase onwards, the more customers can improve performance, extend equipment lifetime, cope with changes and reduce downtime. For example, if a motor becomes defective and no exact equivalent is available because of changed specifications or obsolescence, AR, the digital twin and some simulation software can allow the user to evaluate what will happen if a motor with a different specification is used.

For many applications, the performance of the digital twin can be greatly enhanced by exploiting RE’FLEKT AR technology →03.

03 RE’FLEKT AR solutions reduce maintenance, onboarding and training costs through step-by-step instructions displayed in the real-time environment.
03 RE’FLEKT AR solutions reduce maintenance, onboarding and training costs through step-by-step instructions displayed in the real-time environment.

Start small
A flow meter application – called ABB Ability™ AR Guided Support for measurement devices – crystallizes out some of the concepts discussed above. In doing so, the application provides a concrete example of how the collaboration with RE’FLEKT has led to the development of concepts that can directly benefit customers.

Scattered across industry, there are hundreds of thousands of ABB flow meters. These meters arrived at their destination via different channels – directly from ABB, installed by system integrators, sold by third-party resellers, etc. – which makes it difficult for ABB to control overall quality or have an overview of the installed base. When a meter fails, the user sometimes does not know who to call.

  • 04a Main screen.
  • 04b Menu.
  • 04c Device selection.

04 ABB viewer.

ABB has the 3-D content and the expertise to build AR-guided support procedures for these meters. RE’FLEKT has the AR know-how to catapult these procedures to new levels of utility and simplicity. RE’FLEKT does more than just bring data together: the company leverages its considerable intellectual property foundation to enrich the entire AR environment →04 – 07.

Flow meters provided an excellent use case for a deepening of the ABB/RE’FLEKT collaboration in particular because they offered the opportunity to prove ABB's assumptions using an uncomplicated device with a high-value use case. Conversely, beginning with a large, complex target – such as a gearless mill drive or paper machine – would have resulted in a long, high-risk development effort.

  • 05a Safety instructions are presented.
  • 05b Disassembly instructions.
  • 05c Detailed instructions.
  • 05d Presentation of the real-world surroundings assists orientation.

05 Example screen displays for meters.

After clearly defining deliverables, running a proof-of-concept project and completing development and pilot phases, a preview application containing a small number of guided support procedures has been introduced to channel partners and customers to gather market feedback. In addition, ABB has introduced a new visual remote support tool – ABB Ability™ Remote Insights for service – that utilizes AR to speed problem resolution. Based on RE'FLEKT's platform, this tool is a global standard solution that allows experts in ABB support centers to see what the customer sees at site.

Market introduction
By providing plant operators with innovative tools that further support self-maintenance, show proof of value and drive increased performance, ABB will increase customer confidence.

Through a phased market introduction, beginning with the proof of concept, ABB aims to demonstrate the value that guided support procedures provide when solving real-world problems. Once this value is proven, customer and management buy-in will follow. This will drive development and introduction of additional guided support procedures. As the range of procedures widens, they will rapidly become an expected part of many deliverables.

RE’FLEKT’s AR ecosystem will greatly simplify the development, introduction and use of these enhanced features.

06 Photos can also be included in the display.
06 Photos can also be included in the display.

Delivering digital tools faster with partnerships
ABB Ability™ Collaborative Operations Centers and RE’FLEKT’s AR ecosystem will combine continuous monitoring and data insights with real-time visualization and instant access to knowledge. This advance turns data and analytics into easy-to-use, step-by-step instructions with live remote support, enabling any service technician to perform the task required to resolve a condition in an efficient manner.

RE’FLEKT’s AR ecosystem will allow ABB to provide not just instant customer support but also in-house creation of AR-powered manuals and support. Replacement procedures that can be deployed directly at the customer site can also be generated. This facility will improve workflows, enhance the technicians’ capabilities and increase customer satisfaction.

In time, AR-based approaches will be exploited to deliver value in many ABB systems and devices. Full potential will be reached when total integration with the customer’s data is achieved, though this is some way off.

By making AR and MR affordable and scalable for business, RE’FLEKT’s groundbreaking human-centered platforms empower ABB to infuse their industry knowledge into customized AR and MR solutions. 

07 Detailed handling instructions improve safety.
07 Detailed handling instructions improve safety.

ABB Ability™ Collaborative Operations Centers
In this new era of digitalization, close collaboration between producers and suppliers is important in order to reap the full benefits that Big Data, analytics and visualization offer. ABB provides this collaboration through ABB Ability™ Collaborative Operations Centers – remote operations and maintenance structures that help industrial producers harness the potential of digitalization.

ABB Ability™ Collaborative Operations Centers allow ABB experts to provide insights through data analytics, thus making customer information actionable and meaningful while driving decision making to optimize enterprise performance. The facilities provide 24/7 remote access to ABB digital technologies, data analytics and domain expertise. ABB Collaborative Operations Centers around the world are equipped with advanced applications that allow the customer and ABB experts to collaborate remotely and adapt operations to fluctuating demand quickly.

The centers utilize the ABB AbilityTM cloud infrastructure, enabling the customer to securely integrate and aggregate data, apply predictive analytics and generate insights that can help drive profitability.

In a typical application, ABB designs a remote monitoring center for the customer and integrates it into a Collaborative Operations Center. Field devices are installed at site to gather data and data analytics are applied to quickly identify, categorize and prioritize issues. Common communications protocols are established between the customer site and ABB technical centers, as well as with customer headquarters for further financial analysis and decision-making.

The accelerated support delivered by the ABB and RE’FLEKT AR solutions will greatly increase the power of Collaborative Operations Centers to reduce maintenance, onboarding and training costs through step-by-step instructions displayed in the real-time environment. AR guided maintenance procedures (GMPs) will keep production running by providing faster time-to-repair.

Kim Fenrich, ABB Simulation Product Manager, summarizes the AR approach thus: “We are using transformative digital technologies like augmented reality to build new business models that improve customer performance. These technologies are changing the way we work with customers, providing people with expertise faster.” 


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