One was Italian maestro Andrea Colombini; the other was amateur musician Ulrich Spiesshofer, who plays the clarinet, saxophone, and accordion. The reason for their excitement: The conductor for the night was a dual-arm robot called YuMi (short for ‘you and me’), trained by the maestro and built by Zurich-based automation technology giant ABB, the company the 54-year-old Spiesshofer heads. An economist by training—he has a Ph.D. in economics—and the president and CEO of a technological conglomerate by profession, Spiesshofer was over the moon at the demonstration of the ultimate form of human-robot collaboration. “I think tonight we’re truly making history and writing the future of robotics applications,” a delighted Spiesshofer said after the performance. “YuMi demonstrated how intuitive, how self-learning this machine is… how wonderful our software really is in learning the movement of a conductor, sensing the music, and really conducting an entire team.”

The performance was a testimony to the evolving nature of how humans and machines can work together, and complement each other in various industries. For the former Roland Berger management consultant, it was not just proof of his big bet on “robotics and motion” paying off, but also the company’s transition from a “robot-based business model”—robots that can do repetitive work much faster and with greater precision than humans—to a “robotics-based one that’s solution and functionality driven”. Or more simply put, he’s referring to a set of highly adaptable robots capable of learning and improving by themselves through in-built artificial intelligence (AI).

Collaborative robots, or “cobots” working in tandem with human beings on the assembly line, can substantially raise productivity and efficiency in factories, minimise risks to workers in hazardous industries and toxic mines, and also successfully manage high-precision jobs, ABB says. “We are soon reaching a stage where the robots can self-program themselves when they are given a task—a self-learning kind of thing,” explains Sanjeev Sharma, country head and managing director at ABB India. He should know: ABB’s research and development centre in India had a major role to play in the software development of YuMi, which is a cobot.

The Swiss technology powerhouse is in the midst of a transformative revolution, com-bining the strength of its strong portfolio of automated products and services with digital solutions—its version of Industry 4.0. Under ABB’s Ability digital solutions, 55% of the company’s devices are connected with sensors and activators to capture real-time data, which gets uploaded either on a cloud plat-form or a command centre. Here, a complex fleet of preventive and diagnostic algorithms ensures optimum performance by individual devices and reduces chances of a breakdown.

On a balmy September evening in 2017, under the fresco-covered ceiling of the elegant Teatro Verdi in Pisa, Italy, a select audience marvelled at the performance of the La Donna è Mobile, the famous aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto. The most excited were two musicians in the hall who weren’t part of the performance.

ABB can’t afford to drop the ball as rivals are also pushing ahead with similar Industry 4.0 plans. For Meenu Singhal, vice president, industry business, Schneider Electric, India, the term is equivalent to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). What this means is that machines are connected with customer-centric software to ensure optimum output. The process also reduces inefficiencies in machines by allowing individuals to make informed decisions about the machine load, its output and the cost incurred vis-à-vis other players in the industry, he says. “The data available is easy to analyse and helps industries to improve manufacturing processes, material usage, supply chain and life cycle management of the product,” Singhal adds.

This is part of the industry-wide shift that is happening from “automation to autonomous”, as ABB calls its future strategy. This in a nutshell is the basic difference between Industry 3.0 and Industry 4.0. In the earlier version the ma-chines were automated; in the latter, they are autonomous or digitalised—they have three more layers slapped on them: One, a layer of Internet of Things (IoT), then a layer of ma-chine learning that captures data and analyses it, and finally AI, which helps the machines learn by themselves without human intervention.

ABB’s smart factory at Nelamangala in  Bangalore
ABB’s smart factory at Nelamangala in Bangalore
Image : Photo Courtesy: ABB

The Indian government, too, has been pushing Industry 4.0 through various policy measures, and its “Make in India” initiative. It recently formulated a National Pol-icy for Advanced Manufacturing to catapult the country’s share of manufacturing from the current 16% of the gross domestic product to 25%, in order to become an industrial powerhouse. The policy also underscores the importance of advanced materials, advanced robotics and 3D printing, among others, in smart manufacturing. Government think tank NITI Aayog, too, recently tied up with ABB to make industries AI-ready.

Can Industry 4.0 revolutionise Indian manufacturing and bring it up to speed with the likes of German automotive firms, and help it leapfrog to the next level? Yes, according to most experts. “It can be done “It can be done through our unique solutions driven business model and innovation dynamics, coupled with our 130-year-old expertise, knowledge and domain understanding of industries,” explains Spiesshofer.

Digitally-enabled robots with embedded AI, contends the ABB boss, can store all the knowledge, experience, and capabilities that reside in an operator working for 40 years at a German automotive plant. A plant employing such robots can, therefore, generate the same amount of output, making it as productive or efficient as its counterparts in the West.

Sharma says by using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), workers can be trained to run machines—even those which demand a high level of skill and education, in a much shorter time. These technologies allow the worker to see the insides of a machine, and its functioning in great detail. An accompanying video can teach the worker to run the machine. Thus, large-scale use of VR and AR could bridge the skill gap that is hurting the economy today, he says.

Moreover, ABB’s portfolio of innovative models allows Indian companies to plan, build, and monitor the health of factories and equipment. Firms have the option of developing virtual models through ABB’s three-dimensional simulation models and robot studios, before going in for actual manufacturing. It not only saves time, but also reduces development costs since the equipment can be made error-free through repeated trials. For those wanting to set up factories, ABB has pre-configured robotic solutions and reconfigured products for faster installations and development. And, digitalisation can help monitor the real-time health of assets and issue warnings about any impending breakdown at the factory.

Singhal of Schneider Electric seems to be on the same page. “With EcoStruxure [the company’s IoT-enabled architecture and platform], our IIoT technologies are ready for smart manufacturing and can revolutionise business models for plants and machine builders—increasing profitability and productivity, while our end-to-end software delivers efficiency throughout the plant’s complete life cycle,” he says.

With proper implementation of Industry 4.0, India can not only become as productive and efficient as its global counterparts but also tap into the developed markets of the West through technologically-advanced products, Singhal says. In fact, he points to a study by global consultancy firm McKinsey, which states that through Industry 4.0, India can escape the western labour productivity paradox—long periods of stagnated labour productivity, despite automation.

For Sharma of ABB India, the factories of the future will produce more with less, whether it is raw material, water, power, or even the waste they produce. Factories will have to become far more flexible and ready to adapt, like allowing the production of different products on the same line to match the changing demand-supply situation.

For now, ABB is using technology to measure efficiency at its own factories. At the entrance to its 19-acre smart factory in Nelamangala, Bengaluru, is a dashboard that gives detailed information about what is happening on every line. This includes the status and output of each machine, performance of each worker vis-à-vis his targets, and the speed of output. If there is a mismatch, the dashboard provides information on whether the lag is because the machines are not performing at their optimum or the labourers are slacking off. The information can be used not just to measure the plant’s efficiency, but also be compared with ABB’s factories across the world, explains Sharma, an engineer who has spent 27 years with the company.

What will drive competitiveness of industries and nations in the future? For Spiesshofer, who took over the reins of ABB in 2013, along with IIoT, a new energy revolution holds out the prospect of a sustainable energy future as well as major leaps in productivity. And the $34.3 billion Swiss behemoth (according to 2017 revenues) with more than 135,000 people on its rolls, has been consciously and strategically transforming itself to profit from these revolutions.

“Today, our four divisions—power grids, electrification products, industrial automation, and robotics and motion—are either No. 1 or 2 in their respective markets, and are partners of choice for our customers,” Spiesshofer claims. “Our customers choose us to build stronger, smarter, and greener grids; to provide electrification at all points of electrical consumption; to help industries achieve perfection in automation; and to harness robotics and intelligent motion solutions for better productivity.

The ABB president predicts that only those countries that can “decouple their economic growth from its environmental impact” will flourish in the future. Bound by the targets of the Paris Agreement of 2015, countries will have to accelerate towards renewables and e-mobility. India, he believes, is uniquely placed to reap the benefits of this revolution because of the abundance of solar, wind and hydro power. Also, the government has revised its renewable power target by March 2022 from 176 GW to 227 GW.

Here, ABB believes it can become the country’s partner of choice by providing reliable de-carbonised, baseload power. India’s power needs will then be met from renewables and only the shortfall will be covered by thermal power. This will be achieved by integrating different kinds of renewables with conventional energy through the use of its smart grids. This will lead to distributed generation, where consumers with rooftop solar panels can become producers or “prosumers” of energy. This will require two-way electricity flow management and many feeder points on the main line. “Smart grids can not only smoothen the volatility in the system, but also make it far more efficient,” says Sharma. Smart grids also allow for dynamic electricity pricing—setting different tariffs at different times of the day or on different days—by smartly managing the demand-supply balance. If the government knows that the next day will be bright, shiny and windy, it can inform the citizens about lower electricity prices. Similarly, in the event of a cloudy forecast, it can inform the people about higher prices the next day. “India can take the lead and become the leader in dynamic electricity pricing,” Spiesshofer says, adding it will mean a substantial cut in the country’s oil bill.

Using renewables to power homes, cars, and factories can be a challenge because it will mean carrying power over longer distances—because the source of power may be far from the point of consumption. And it is here that ABB’s value proposition, “Bringing electricity from any power plant to any plug” becomes important. Its ultra and high voltage direct current (UHVDC) transmission can carry electricity over long distances without transmission losses. A good example is ABB’s 800 KW Northeast-Agra UHVDC project, which brings clean hydropower from the Northeast to Agra, covering 1,728 km and providing electricity to 90 million people.

“It is all about setting up green energy corridors across the country so that clean energy from power surplus states can be brought to the power deficit states,” adds Sharma. He cites the example of another ABB project—the 1,830 km long UHVDC Raigarh to Pulugar link—which will integrate thermal and wind energy and provide power to 80 million people in high consumption areas located thousands of kilometres away. When the wind strength is low in the south, the power deficit will be made up by the northern states by providing thermal power through a two-way link; when there is excess wind power, the south will give clean energy to the north.

Storage, too, should not pose a major challenge. Excess power can either be stored in batteries or in “pump storage”, or more simply stored in water. With battery costs still high, pump storage could be a viable alternative for India. In pump storage, the surplus power during the day is used to lift water to a certain height in reservoirs or dams within or outside the country to generate kinetic energy. In the night, the water is allowed to flow down, converted into electricity, and sent back to the power deficit areas.

But what excites the ABB president most is India’s accelerated drive towards an electric vehicle (EV) revolution. The company, he points out, offers the entire bandwidth of technologies to enable sustainable transport—from grid integration to transport of renewable energy to the fast charging of cars in record time. Many states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh have rolled out their EV plans and this provides a huge opportunity for ABB, he says.

“We took a decision to take electric mobility as a business opportunity very seriously in 2011 and today we are the global market leader in fast charging,” says the man who started the e-mobility charging infrastructure initiative in a garage in the Netherlands with a startup.

That he means business was evident when he showcased a 350 KW charging station that can charge a car in eight minutes—enough to travel 200 km—at the recent Mobility Summit in New Delhi. Connecting the fast charging stations to the cloud can also bring in additional benefits like allowing people to make cashless payments, etc. The company also plans to localise manufacturing of charging stations, as it did in the case of “solar where we brought in global technology and adapted it for Indian conditions”, Spiesshofer says.

ABB’s recent moves are already paying dividends in India. “We have seen a 28% growth in robotics automation revenue, 54% more orders in oil and gas, and 60% more orders in mining and metals in 2017,” Sharma said during an investors’ call in February. Other than providing a wide portfolio of products for industries like transmission and d distribution in the power sector, ABB is also helping Indian industries become future-ready. It has entered into a partnership with the government-owned Cochin Shipyard, and Shipping Corporation of India, to provide automated solutions. “We observe that ABB has one of the most comprehensive product portfolios across various industries versus peers, imparting it significant competitive advantages,” says Aditya Narain, analyst at Edelweiss Equities.

With its portfolio of automation, robotics, Ability digital solutions, and differentiated products, ABB hopes to play a vital role in shaping the competitiveness of not just Indian companies but also the nation. Experts believe technologies such as ABB’s can help the country leapfrog to the next level of industrial manufacturing, and compete with the best. It is a rare opportunity, not to be missed.

(This story was originally published in the November 2018 issue of the magazine)

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