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Embracing digitisation – collaboration is the key

Even with the latest technologies and connectivity within the process and control space, when it comes to digitisation, no one company or person has enough expertise to know it all. This is not only because there is a lot to learn, but also because the landscape is changing so fast – sometimes on a monthly or even weekly basis.

ABB is a company that prides itself on the knowledge and expertise it has in the automation and robotics space. However, when it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT), it also realises that selective business partnerships are key to its success.

“If you look at the way learning develops, it is no longer in nice, discrete verticals,” said ABB Australia’s business development manager Simon DeBell. “Here, we’re talking about things that don’t necessarily take place within one company. ABB believes it has the applications expertise to understand the IoT environment. But when it comes to capitalising on the trends around the IoT, then we have selected two partners to work with. One is IBM Watson, which provides the computing pattern recognition power for the speed of analytics and presentation options — to tackle the complexity of ArtificiaI Intelligence (AI).

“Then we have Microsoft Azure, which is all about accessibility around this partnership between ABB and IBM Watson. It provides accessibility for customers in a secure cloud-based environment. In the past, I’m certain ABB would have tried to do a lot of those things in house.”

ABB also recognised early on that in order to get onboard with the digitisation of industry, developing key partnerships with clients was also important. Not just in the sense of the traditional provider/customer relationship, but one that is more symbiotic and open to suggestions from both sides.

“The trend we are seeing in a some industries – you’re seeing it in marine and offshore platforms and remote mine sites – is that no client can be confident that they have all the expertise they need to address any particular issue that arises,” said DeBell. “You’d need an army of people. Economics doesn’t allow them to do that, assuming they could even recruit them.”

This leads to the next observation about digitisation and how it lends itself to the immediacy of how groups of people can get together and solve problems without having to be in the same room. This is not like a conference call situation. De Bell is talking about being able to share complicated information – whether it be computer modelling, infographic or video – and making instant decisions/changes in real time without having to go through a series of back and forths.

This is now going to be the norm, according to DeBell. However, he also points out there are a few other issues that need fixing first.

“Originally companies had their own communication protocols and they could be confident that the systems would perform as they had designed them in the way their clients wanted them,” said DeBell. “But then clients got a little uncomfortable about this because they said, ‘How do we deal with a situation caused by incompatibility?’ We have effectively inherited a system from different vendors and the technologies they come from means that one vendor’s product may be a different generation from the other. The customers themselves are now pushing towards open standards and more interoperability.”

Once standardisation has been implemented, then the next issue is that of security.
“As soon as you take the industry in one direction, then people turn around and say ‘It’s a little bit too open’,” said DeBell. “And then you get concerns about cyber security. So, you get other factors that are overlaid on top of that. Essentially you’ve created a room that you have to make sure is secure. You now have to make sure that the firewall is not going to be breached and data security compromised otherwise you have other issues that arise particularly when the information is digitised.”

The employment conundrum
Once this has been addressed, the last piece in the collaboration puzzle is – what about the individual? When it comes to digitisation, AI and robotics are not far behind. Can you collaborate with AI when there’s a perception that it’s a technology that’s out to make some jobs for humans obsolete?

“History shows that automation doesn’t necessarily reduce employment,” said De Bell. “What it does do is change the nature of the employment. I was looking on one of the federal government websites a few weeks ago and they were estimating that something like 15,000 jobs were created in the information and communications technology (ICT) space because new technologies are offering new opportunities. These are not necessarily focused on that narrow ICT. These are broader jobs.

While DeBell understands that it is unsettling for people to lose their jobs as automation performs tasks faster, and more accurately,  they can also look at it as a time to upskill. This is impacting professional roles as well as blue collar jobs.

“The interesting aspect  for me is how I see skills changing. The way people will work together will alter,” said DeBell. “I think that the collaborative working environment is going to be much more pronounced than it is now. The knowledge curve is constantly being pushed because data analytics enables speed and as things have become more capable of being automated I think the role of the human being changes.”

DeBell said it’s not so much about automation taking over jobs, but about technology help us moving forward, too. We can’t afford to be static in developing and adopting new technologies because they’re going to get deployed anyway. So, why not be at the forefront?

“Some people say [automation] is going to be very threatening but I think it is [only] threatening if you’re satisfied  with the world as it is,” he said. “What we can say now is that the development and adoption of disruptive technologies is inevitable and unavoidable. ABB doesn’t tend to think about disruptive technologies, we tend to think about enabling technologies. Disruptive seems to suggest that everything is steady and a steady world is always the way the world should be. Whereas enabling technologies is all about progression and that’s the way the various industrial revolutions have come about.”

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