The bi-annual ABB Customer World event was held in Houston, Texas on March 4-8, 2019. In the two years since the prior customer event, the company has made significant acquisitions and spin-offs, simplified its organization, and developed partnerships to support its ABB Ability platform and brand.
What a Difference Two Years Makes at ABB Customer World
The ABB Customer World event in Houston is a bi-annual meeting for ABB customers in the Americas region. Two years ago, ABB gathered more than 8,000 people in Houston for the initial ACW, where the company launched its ABB Ability platform and brand. During the two years since, the firm has changed markedly. In April 2017, ABB stunned the automation world by announcing the acquisition of privately held B&R (Bernecker + Rainer Industrie-Elektronik GmbH), the innovative factory automation leader based in Austria. In September of 2017, ABB announced the $2.6 billion acquisition of GE Industrial Solutions, GE’s global electrification business.
To develop its ABB Ability offering, in 2017 ABB also entered into strategic partnerships with Microsoft (for its Azure cloud platform), HPE (for edge computing, on-premise and data center compute platforms) and IBM (for AI). In December 2018, ABB announced the eventual spin-off of its Power Grids business unit to Hitachi of Japan, as well as a simplified organization. Finally, one week before the event, the company announced a further simplified organization, the combination of its robotics and factory automation businesses into a single business unit and a strategic partnership with design and simulation leader, Dassault Systèmes of France.
That’s a lot of corporate change to absorb in two years. The changes leave ABB as a group more balanced between factory and process automation and in a far stronger position in markets like machine control and electrification. They also help balance its global business geographically. Besides all this, ABB continued to develop the ABB Ability solution set and platform. A far different 2019 version of ABB met its customers in Houston this past month (this time with 10,000+ attending).
Development of ABB Ability
With so much change, it’s difficult to point to a single highlight, but the evolution of the ABB Ability platform and solutions is probably the single most important element of the overall ABB strategy. In this area, the company has been quite consistent in defining ABB Ability as both a platform and a brand. The company’s explanation of this strategy has also been consistent.
As a brand, ABB Ability is designed to deliver outcomes to customers. These outcomes derive from application solutions that to some degree utilize a common platform.
As a platform, ABB takes a minimalist approach. The platform consists only of a set of shared services and application interfaces designed to facilitate applications in being able to scale horizontally as well as connect to a cloud platform. Like GE’s Predix, the platform itself has been developed and shepherded by a team that operates separately from the mainline business units. Quite unlike Predix, the objective was to keep this team and platform small, the partners a strategic few, and not to attempt to cultivate an external developer ecosystem. ABB explained the function of the platform itself as consisting of four planks:
- Flexibility of deployment – Applications must be capable of running in different environments; some at the edge, others on-premise, others in the cloud. Customers will have their distinct infrastructures and requirements as well. ARC believes that containerized software is a means to achieve this and that the ABB Ability platform is embracing it.
- Interoperability – This provides “horizontal” flexibility, especially for data, so various ABB Ability applications can leverage each other and share resources.
- Intelligence – This is the main ingredient; the objective is to focus, package, and leverage the domain expertise of ABB organizations and experts.
- Security and data control – Security, yes (who doesn’t want more?). As for data, ABB policy places the customer as the owner of all data and in charge of all associated permissions.
The small set of strategic partners are engaged to supply ABB with whole areas of competence complementing the company’s own internal capabilities and domain expertise. The four “ABB Ability Digital Partners” are Microsoft (for the Azure cloud platform), HPE (for data center-to-edge scalable compute, networking, and storage), IBM (for artificial intelligence), and finally Dassault Systèmes (for a digital twin capability provided via DS’s extensive design and simulation software portfolio). ABB believes this newest partnership completes the ABB Ability puzzle at present.
ABB-Dassault Systèmes Partnership
The announcement of a strategic partnership with DS was the biggest announcement of the event. The primary rationale is that DS adds a digital twin capability to the ABB Ability platform. Both firms indicated in discussions that the partnership would launch with a highly targeted and pragmatic approach focused on joint customers in discrete manufacturing, where the combination of robotics and machine control with a digital twin appeals to customers during production engineering as well as during operations. While most of these early customers were large firms, both partners reported that SME-sized customers were also interested and had made inquiries after the announcement.
As it progresses, ABB sees the partnership extending to a larger set of customers and applications, including the process industries. ABB also indicated that the 2019 Hannover Messe would feature the first technical demonstrations of the partnership as well as meetings with shared customers. This initial play for the partnership in discrete manufacturing industries matches ABB’s new aggregation of its factory automation and robotics businesses. It also highlights a combination of capabilities that is unique to ABB.
Acquisitions and Divestitures
With the completed acquisition of GE Industrial Solutions, the GEIS products were on display at the event. The ABB Power Grids business was also on full display despite its eventual spin-off to Hitachi. That deal is not expected to close until 2020. When it does, the existing management remains in place. The deal creates an 80/20 Joint Venture, which will operate for three years. ABB and Hitachi both have options for transfer of full ownership to Hitachi during that period. Obviously, the Hitachi business complements ABB geographically. Further, Hitachi can provide project financing for large projects. The ABB grid business unit has taken on some billion-dollar projects in recent years, even though ABB does not provide project financing. The ability to provide financing should enable the new firm to compete for even larger projects.
There were a number of new product announcements. We’ll focus on one. ABB demonstrated its safety lifecycle management offering and upcoming functionality. The company provided ARC Advisory Group an overview of the SafetyInsight offering by walking through the risk awareness the product provides that quickly identifies increases in risk in accordance with best practices safety standards. End users in this field understand the concept of a “Swiss cheese model” where, given a rare set of circumstances, a safety event can occur through aligned failings at each of the protection layers. The upcoming functionality makes this condition visible before an event occurs by highlighting areas where the design basis (basis of safety) is being violated or has been shown to be inaccurate. The user interface identifies the various layers of protection and their near real-time state as well as overall status overviews in the form of the end user’s own risk matrix. According to the company, SafetyInsight uses the risk assessment and design information to create a process safety digital twin. This functionality gives the solution a closed-loop ability and allows the system to provide feedback to the user as it learns the difference between actual operations and design assumptions.
ABB has emerged from two years of change as a leader in all aspects of industrial automation: factory, robotics, and process. While no form of organization chart is perfect, the new ABB organization is vastly simplified compared to the almost Byzantine matrixes of years ago. Besides yielding immediate cash, the spin-off of the grid business is a bet (led by activist investors) that a simpler organization more tightly focused on industrial automation, motion, and electrification will be easier to manage than the traditional ABB. Time will tell.
The addition of B&R and the development of the ABB Ability platform are also very important long-term developments. ABB has been very consistent in its plan and story for ABB Ability. Several years ago, many questioned ABB by asking “What is the ABB equivalent to GE Predix?” Today, the course it has set and maintained for ABB Ability appears prudent and wise.
The challenges from a corporate standpoint are to develop a successful DS partnership and leverage the other ABB Ability partners successfully. A major challenge for the automation businesses is to expand share in the highly competitive automation market for the hybrid industries (food, beverage, and pharmaceutical), since now ABB’s automation portfolio covers virtually 100 percent of these industries’ needs.
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Keywords: ABB, ABB Ability, ABB Customer World, Dassault Systèmes, Hitachi, Industrial IoT, ARC Advisory Group.