ABB Taps IBM Watson to Connect Islands of Automation

There’s been plenty of talk about how the industrial Internet of Things (IoT) will revolutionize manufacturing and supply chains, and now it’s getting a boost from IBM’s Watson.

ABB recently announced it was collaborating to bring together its ABB Ability with IBM Watson IoT cognitive capabilities to customers in utilities, industry, transport and infrastructure. In a telephone interview with EBO, ABB chief digital officer Guido Jouret said ABB’s deep domain knowledge and extensive portfolio of digital solutions combined with IBM’s expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning will provide the factory floor with real-time cognitive insights.

ABB's Guido Jouret

ABB’s Guido Jouret

ABB’s installed base already includes 70 million connected devices and 70,000 digital control systems, as well as thousands of enterprise software solutions in the industrial space. Jouret said the partnership will help ABB’s current digital offerings and connected systems do more than just gather data; rather, cognitive industrial machines will be able to use the collected data to understand, sense, reason and take actions that will help improve quality control, reduce downtime, and increase the speed and yield of industrial processes.

There are a number of ways the ABB/IBM Watson collaboration benefit the electronics supply chain, said Jouret. One example is identifying defects, some of which are not visible to the human eye. These tasks have previously been done manually, which mean the process was slow and error-prone. Instead, real-time production images captured by ABB will be analyzed by IBM Watson IoT for Manufacturing right on the shop floor. Manufacturers will be better equipped to increase the volume flowing through their production lines while improving accuracy and consistency.

ABB’s collaboration with IBM to leverage Watson for IoT is part of its broader digital strategy. Jouret is ABB’s first chief digital officer, having taken on the role in October. The job description varies across industries; for ABB, it’s a role that reports directly to the CEO. When asked if he is a technology or a business guy, the answer is always “yes,” he said. “My mandate is to put digital technology into everything we do.” That includes ABB products and services, but also the company itself: How it operates should reflect that it’s a digital entity too.

Jouret’s background is in computer science, and ABB uses every aspect of that discipline in IoT for industrial as it encompasses embedded operating systems, communications, protocols, and cybersecurity, including gateways and firewalls. “All of those elements come into play,” he said, and are being coordinated in conjunction with sophisticated materials science and electrical sciences that are part of ABB’s products. 

The company’s software-defined, increasingly connected products are also opening up new business models, said Jouret. As an example, pay-per-use billing can be used in the same way companies such as Xerox charges customers for pages printed, rather than a one-time sale of a printer. The same model for IoT industrial and manufacturing requires more connectivity.

Jouret said that’s where ABB’s partnership with IBM comes in; it’s the next step of automation for industrial and manufacturing environments, which have been successful at setting up islands of automation. Right now, however, there is still some work required to connect these islands, either for inspection or ensuring the next step of a process. “Each of these islands has a human involved.”

While giving Watson a name imbues it with a sense of personality and identity, said Jouret. The reality is that it’s not just one thing, but rather it’s a combination of tools, rules and machine learning that needs humans if it is to be effective in solving problems. “It's not plug in and go,” he said. “It's a trial and error kind of thing.”

Good data is critical for the machine learning offered by Watson. “You have to have weeks, months and years of historical data.” Having enough data is a key ingredient to understand what worked and what didn’t work, said Jouret. “You have to have representative data for machine learning.”

And there remains a lack of integration between information technology and operational technology. IBM Watson can apply its cognitive abilities to this larger problem. “Watson has been optimized for solving other problems,” he said. “We bring domain expertise; IBM provides tools that have been homed in other markets.”

Inevitably, the issue of jobs – more specifically, the elimination of jobs – comes up, but Jouret doesn’t believe the human worker is under threat in the bigger picture as new jobs will be created. He noted that Japan, Germany, and South Korea, the three countries that have the highest number of robots per worker, also have the lowest unemployment. While automation does displace people in the short term, it creates jobs in the long term. “We have a lack of automation experts – people who can configure robots, put them together and essentially transform these islands of automation,” Jouret concluded. 

1 comment on “ABB Taps IBM Watson to Connect Islands of Automation

  1. UdyRegan
    August 1, 2018

    I will be very excited to revisit this particular scenario after the framework has the opportunity to run itself for a couple of months. Even the preliminary results from this – to see what the machines have gathered in terms of not just the data, but what analysis they've gleaned from all of that information – it could be potentially so big… It's really such exciting times right now.

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