Man working with robots in lab

How the cloud can elevate Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions

ABB partners with Microsoft to help customers do more with data through AI-powered digital industry solutions

Needing to expand operations

ABB, a global leading digital solutions company, was looking for a new way to collect and analyze data using AI.

Partnering with another global leader

Reaching out to Microsoft, ABB was able to implement Azure cloud technology, replacing roles that were traditionally human led and quickly make more complex calculations in less time.

Pushing to tomorrow

Partnering with Microsoft, ABB’s goal is to invest in the right technology, people, and teams that continue pushing the capabilities of what AI can do.

ABB is a technology leader with a comprehensive offering of digital solutions for industries. With a history of innovation spanning more than 130 years, ABB is a leader in digital solutions with four customer-focused, globally leading businesses: electrification, industrial automation, motion, robotics, and discrete automation, supported by its common ABB Ability digital platform.

With the advent of new data analysis capabilities and the scale of cloud computing, ABB has embraced AI and implemented automation solutions that utilize some AI functions to further optimize industrial production in manufacturing and process industries.

Digitization, at scale

While ABB has been collecting and analyzing data for years, this has traditionally been on-premises. But as the company embarked on its digitization journey, it saw in the cloud an opportunity to scale its approach and bring even more insights and possibilities to their customers. ABB selected Microsoft Azure as its cloud platform in 2016 to develop its next level of data-driven solutions.

The entry into cloud computing allowed ABB to take advantage of additional cloud-based digital capabilities like AI quickly.

Also, AI offered the opportunity to yield entirely new types of insights for customers by using data in different ways, such as for predictive maintenance.

Christopher Ganz, Group Vice President of Digital Research and Development, ABB explains, “AI is particularly useful in situations where things are easily observed but hard to predict, like with equipment failures. Explaining how a material deteriorates is typically very difficult and requires complex calculations. But we can instead measure the effects of degradation by collecting data and using AI functions to detect a developing failure before it happens.”

AI’s capacity to deal with data in more complex ways is allowing ABB to automate human-led activities, and free people to focus on other things. For example, using machine learning and image recognition allows for automated detection of ship traffic or obstacles in front of vessels, providing additional assurance, and enhancing worker safety when scanning route hazards in marine day or night.

“In our partnership with ABB we are utilizing the AI capabilities of Azure to jointly innovate and build an Industry AI Platform that provides high business value to customers.”

—Gavriella Schuster, CVP, One Commercial Partner, Microsoft

An expanding partnership

ABB’s decision to adopt Microsoft Azure as its cloud platform also began a partnership journey. For the company, the decision was simple “why build our own when we can rely on the Microsoft cloud,” says Christopher. The decision was unanimous and opened the door to a new collaborative relationship between the two companies.

As the field of AI matured, and AI began to feature more prominently in business strategies, it was an easy decision to extend the collaboration with Microsoft into the realm of AI. ABB had built several AI-powered innovations for customers, and the Microsoft AI platform allowed them to scale and accelerate that progress.

“We are working very closely with Microsoft in building our Industry AI platform. The partnership has worked really well, and that’s due to the close collaboration between two companies that are focused on delivering value together,” says Christopher.

Delivering higher value with AI

ABB’s research and development group, combined with support from the Microsoft alliance, has enabled a number of innovations that promise higher levels of value for customers.

One such area is around Industrial AI, where ABB is developing industrial applications of AI within the context of autonomous industries. The solution will provide the next level of automation for several industries.

Another area is driving new levels of automation with AI. Solutions like predictive monitoring provide an automated way of monitoring efficiency and preventing disruption due to breakages or malfunctions. Automation can also help in driving more sustainable working methods. For example, in the mining industry, digital solutions can optimize and automate ventilation systems to bring air to the right portions of an underground mine, ensuring worker safety and efficiencies in energy consumption.

The same solution is applied to clear mines of toxic fumes immediately after blasting, clearing passages faster to allow humans to enter it safely, thereby increasing productivity.

In addition, ABB has also focused its research efforts on industry-specific solutions. Recently, ABB worked with Helsinki City Transport on developing and testing a remotely controlled passenger ferry service. While the test continues, the effort has opened the possibility of allowing people to monitor and control vessels from anywhere.

Lessons learned

ABB’s research and development efforts have yielded important lessons and best practices when it comes to successful AI implementations. Understanding what AI can and can’t do is one of those lessons. With AI being a constant topic in the news and an overly glorified topic, ABB has found that guiding customers on what AI is best suited for is important to all strategic conversations with customers, and critical to getting on the right path to delivering positive business outcomes.

As well, understanding what kind of data is needed for AI is another important topic ABB addresses with customers. Christopher sums it up by saying, “selecting the right data is more critical than being able to use AI functions.” For example, knowing the year-over-year production output of a conventional power plant is not particularly useful. However, having data on errors, failures, or anomalies becomes hugely valuable and is something that can be tracked and predicted through AI.

Moving forward with AI

Today, ABB is at the forefront of developing industrial applications of AI. But the way the company sees it, they are just getting started. ABB will continue to create new applications for AI by scrutinizing the market and responding to customer demands. Their goal is to generate many of the breakthroughs in the field by investing in the right technology, people, and teams that will put them in the position to do so. With Microsoft and Azure as an important partner in AI, the platform ABB is building with Microsoft is key to their future digitization strategy.

“We are building strategic partnership with ABB to bring together Azure AI capabilities with ABB’s Industry AI Platform to help customers take advantage of AI-powered digital industry solutions.”

—Simran Sachar, AI and Analytics Partner Lead, One Commercial Partner, Microsoft

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