Nov 21, 2018 | 5 min read

Conversation with Sean Parham

Podcast #36: IoT Value Starts With the Customer

Sean Parham is Group VP and Head of Product Management for the ABB Ability Platform. In our conversation, he covered his origins helping the telecom industry migrate the transition to broadband, and the lessons learned that apply today. The discussion touched on the concept of “Maslows Hierarchy of Value”, the parallels of systems management applied to the challenges of managing distributed assets and the broad implications of how technology impacts multiple industries. 

The conversation also addresses the disruption coming from two simultaneous revolutions in IT and energy and how this changes the way that energy is generated and delivered, through microgrids, with green energy and storageRobotics is not to be feared as it solves the undersupply of talent and people. Current areas of technology focus for startups include batteries and the consumer drone market.   

Book Recommendation:

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee 



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Good day everyone, this is Ed Maguire Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, with another episode of our Edge Podcast. Today we have Sean Parham who is Group VP and Head of Product Management for the ABB Ability Platform.  Sean is actually the second person from ABB that we’ve had on our podcast, previously we had Guido Jouret, and he was absolutely one of the most fascinating people that I had the pleasure of talking to, and ABB is a company with a lot of really interesting businesses, they’re doing some remarkable work in robotics, AI, industrial automation, and platforms, and that’s a great opportunity for us to get a chance to drill into a little bit of the thinking around what some of the people who are making things happen on the ground are doing. Sean, thanks so much for joining us.

Thanks a lot for having me on, it’s a real pleasure.

Great. I’d like to start off with a bit of context, and just understand a bit about your background. Could you share some of the critical aspects to you I guess, of your background, and what has shaped your view of connected industry in the work that you’re doing today?

That really for me goes back to probably about fifteen years ago actually, as I think about it, 2004 was really where I got engaged in a transition that at the time, we didn’t know to call it IoT, it was pre-that term. A big portion, about half of my career has been spent with start-ups, where we had a vision to really simplify things for the global service providers, so telephone companies, cable companies, spyware companies etc. who were grappling with this issue, this massive issue that was impacting their industry what we now call broadband internet.

The problem that existed for them is one that resonates with us now, which is this notion of this brand-new technology wave coming in, and hitting everything that they did, and a complete flip, a complete changeover in the way that they had to do business. What I mean by that is, their legacy business had been very centrally controlled, run from the center, from the network, and now with broadband what they faced was this really massively challenging proposition where the center of that experience, if you will, the center of that control moved from the center of their network, out into our homes, and out into our businesses. This was a proposition that was not only one that they had to tackle, but it had associated with it risk, it had associated with its major operational challenges, like how do we fix things inside of someone’s home, like not the friendliest of environments of course to work in. And so, they were faced with this, they had to do something, they had to deploy broadband, but the cost, the risks, everything that they were dealing with was looking like it was going to go off the charts.

So, what that caused us and the industry to do was to really tackle that, really from a platform point of view. And so, you fast-forward now 15 years, what’s happened is this industry, this massive multi-trillion dollar industry; communications and IT, is run by these very large scale what we now call IoT platforms, they’ve managed all these literally millions, tens, hundreds of millions of devices that are in our homes, in our businesses, and they establish the way that they set those machines up, the way that they monitor them, the way they support them etc. This start up, we were successful in that process and deployed a couple of platforms across the industry, which I was directly part of and led, and so today we have this example of where these tens of millions of devices are managed, run, and are providing value through value added services that are built on top of these devices, and on top of these platforms, and on top of the workflows, and everything that the folks do with their broadband services today.

What we saw after we got done with that process, and sold the start-up, had a successful exit, so that was a good deal; what we saw after that was, wow, this really changed an industry, I mean there’s just nothing the same about the communications industry since that transition occurred. We had this vision, me and some of my peers looked and said, ‘This is going to go everywhere’, this notion of how this worked, and the value that it created is just absolutely going to go everywhere, and the impact that it will have there in industry, in commercial endeavors, in energy and utilities, is going to make the trillion dollar transitions that we had in the communications industry look like small results, because there’s just so many things that we can impact throughout the world, and what I think was a really positive way for the communications industry. And now, we’re on that mission to do that here for all of the things that we touch.

And you mentioned Guido, great guy, I absolutely agree, he and I started working together at Cisco, Cisco attempted to acquire that same start-up, I ended up going to one of their competitors, but Guido and Cisco kept after me, and the vision, and the mission. We did some work there at Cisco, he and I went off and did a couple of other things, a couple of other start-ups, and then when Guido landed the role of Chief Digital Officer here at ABB, he tapped me on the shoulder, and here we are making it happen for ABB.

I think that’s really interesting that you brought up this transition in the communications industry, and this ability, or the need to control multiple end points, whether it be hundreds of thousands, or millions of end points. And I think back about the systems management market in enterprise software, I’d love to get your perspective on what may be different. My background is mostly pure enterprise software, I remember watching the original systems management vendors in the nineties coming up out of the mainframe and client server area, into distributing computing, you had the BMC and CA-Unicenter, and a number of other companies that were really focused purely on enterprise assets and software. What were some of the unique challenges and technological approaches that were effectively applied to the transition that you saw in the communications industry?

Great analogy and its directly related, because what I described was over the span of a couple of start-ups, and one end of the start-ups came directly out of the enterprise systems management space that you described, it was a start-up company called Motif based in Austin. The evolution of that technology and applied into this new space is really what founded one of those two platforms that I mentioned earlier. The lessons learned out of that, there’s a large number of them that apply, and in fact I think we can look back even over the last 25 or 30 years of how the IT and communication space evolved, and some of the dead-ends that we went down, some of the mistakes we made, as well as some of the things that we did right, that can be applied here. I can say it’s not the same song, but it sort of rhymes, right, we can see patterns emerge that we can learn from.

Some of those specific things are looking to how do we start to standardize things, and how to do that in a way that focusses first on things like interoperability. Today in the IoT space, and in particular in the industrial IoT space, there’s a lot of conversations that go on around companies attempting to bring everything onto their platform, ‘We’ll solve this problem just by bringing everything onto this one grand unified platform’, and as you know from the enterprise software space, we tried that a while ago, there were proprietary positions on how to bring those assets together. You fast-forward, that didn’t work, it didn’t happen, in fact what we ended up doing is what we now know, it’s the platform that we run on today for internet and web applications, it’s made up of a bunch of things that are highly modular, that work together in specific ways, that we’ve focused on, inoperability everywhere from the things that are talking, all the way up to the highest level of software, and connecting things in standardized ways via web APIs etc., and everything in-between.

So, it’s not a one-size fits all sort of thing, it’s not a one platform to rule the world, it’s how do we get these various systems and various layers to talk to each other in meaningful ways? How do we share data, how do we do that safely, how do we protect that and protect those connections, and then allow those various applications to work together, to provide for specific value that customers want? Because customers don’t buy platforms, they don’t buy infrastructure, unless they’re doing that in the service of getting something specific done. So, they’re looking for a particular extraction of value, or creation of value, and you start there, and then you work backwards into what kind of infrastructure, components and pieces that you need to put together.

That’s really the approach we’ve tried to take with ABB and the ability platform, it’s not to start from a platform point of view. We think the last thing this planet needs is another IoT platform on the market, so we don’t offer it as a generic platform offering. What we do, is use that platform and build that into the applications and solutions that we provide to our specific customers inside specific segments, and deliver the value there, and then leverage the platform to do the things that customers want to get done; like share the data, like unify the way machines talk to that platform etc. bring security to the equation in places where maybe it hasn’t been before. So, it’s in the service of what a customer wants to get done, and what kind of value they’d like to extract from that system.

Does that make sense?

Oh, absolutely. I think you’ve hit on a really important point which is, platforms and infrastructure themselves are not what customers are interested in, they’re interested in the utility of the technology as applied to the problems that they’re looking to solve, whether it’s an application or a solution. It’s interesting that we’re having this conversation in the same week that IBM just spent $34 billion to buy Red Hat, and that could lead us down another couple of interesting conversations! I’ve always looked at platforms as in some respects they can for vendors provide a lot of value capture, and in the service of the applications above them, or that take advantage of their capabilities, they add an enormous amount of value and leverage, but the platform market itself has certainly seen an explosion, almost Cambrian explosion of entrance in the market. I’d love to get your thoughts on the application of this platform concept to industrial technologies. Given your background in IT and telecom, and connectivity, how do you look at how the markets evolved, and what do you make of all the platforms that are out there currently? By last count its somewhere over 400.

Yeah, you’ve nailed it. The value is not in the platform, what I like to point out to people is to say something along the lines of, ‘When was the last time you bought a database for fun and productivity? The answer is, almost never, you buy that in the service of some application, of something that you want to get done, and the same thing is true here. What we see is sometimes around here what we call the Maslow's hierarchy of value, and it starts with getting things connected, pulling data out of those things, and trying to make some sense of that data to either remotely troubleshoot something, or to keep tabs on something. That’s useful and interesting, but its insufficient really in terms of getting at where that value truly occurs. So, relating it back to what we saw in the IT and communication space, and the establishment, in particular in that comms industry, where the value showed up, there is the same placed value as showing up here, which is further up that hierarchy, that Maslow's hierarchy, into where I can now start to combine the data from various systems, various individual components, and turn that into a view of a process; what do I want to get done? So, you asked about the industrial space and things like manufacturing, so when I step back from looking at individual pieces of data, or component data, and I start to look at what am I trying to produce, where are the bottlenecks, where are the costs, where are opportunities to speed things up, or to add particular value?  And I can look at that as a flow, as in a real process flow, and then optimize across that flow, and now I can start to extract real value, start to cause things to occur.

So, as an example there’s a measure in our industry, in the industrial segments around overall effectiveness, and the industry today really state of the art for industry effectiveness is only around 40 percent, so only 40 percent of a factory’s capabilities are being utilized because of the inefficiencies that are built into that system. We have examples where we’ve taken the IoT concept, and the platform concept, and then looked at it from an application and a software point of view, as to how to make that more efficient over that process, and in particular cases, in particular instances we’ve taken one customer as an example that I can’t mention the name, because they consider this as part of their competitive advantage, but they were running at 46 percent which is well above the industry average, so they were feeling pretty good about that. We brought in a system to look at this from an overall process flow improvement point of view, particularly focused on flexibility, meaning how can they change what that line is producing over time, and make that more flexible.

We were literally able to take that from 46 percent, to 80 percent efficiency, or 80 percent usage, and that’s massive. You can make those kinds of shifts for a particular customer, and across the segment, you can change the world. And we also saw this, like I said reflecting back on that past, for the service providers where they started to automate, and to create structures that made those operational flows far more efficient, far more flexible and effective, and they were quite literally producing hundreds of millions of dollars of value in their networks, in their systems every year because of these enhanced process flows, enhanced automations and autonomy that occurred, because you’re applying that systems approach to it. That’s what’s in front of us now for the industrial IoT space, and it’s focused on those applications and solutions, and how do you apply that into a particular system, for a particular customer, inside of a particular segment.

I’d like to understand how you go about looking at process flows, and in your customer’s environments, and then mapping those needs to the capabilities you bring to bear in the platform. Really what I’m trying to get at is how youlook at what you look to deliver, the capabilities you look to deliver on the ability platform in your software. What is the process that you guys go through in evaluating the flow of other processes, and then the potential value capture there, and how that can be unlocked with software?

Again, going back to the previous part of the conversation, it goes back to starting with the customer. It sounds a little apple pie and abstract, but it’s not, you have to go straight to the customer, straight to the management teams that want to get something done, and you have to start from a consultative point of view and say, ‘What is it that you want to achieve?’ For customer I mentioned earlier, it was ‘How do we achieve more flexibility in terms of what we produce on this particular line?’  Because the reason they were 46 percent wasn’t simply because they didn’t have enough automation or enough instrument, they did; what they had was not enough flexibility, they couldn’t change that system flexibly quickly enough, in order to produce something new on that line, in enough time in order to meet the demands, the needs that they have from a supply chain point of view. So, they had plenty of automation, but automation in our space in the industrial and commercial space is often today a fairly static thing; you set it up, you get it installed, you get the automation working, and then you slowly back away from the environment, and leave it alone to let it run. The challenge with that is, that means you can’t change that very quickly and very easily.

So in that example what we did is, we looked at their desire, and we looked at how they wanted to make that more flexible, and then we started to look at what kind of technology can we deploy, what kind of infrastructure can we put into place to enable them to do that, and to make it not only more flexible by adding additional computes, and some additional software capabilities, that were more reactive to those supply chain demands that were coming in from the top-down, but then to make that system interoperable, to connect it to other systems where that automation wasn’t already connected into these other systems. Using the platform to interconnect those systems meant the line could now be responsive to not only supply chain demands northbound, what’s coming at me; but also, then how do I adjust the production systems, so that they get attuned to that particular demand, and produce that far more rapidly, or far more flexibly than they could in the past.

So, starting with this customer value, what do they want to get done, and how do they want to get that done? And then bringing a particular implementation into place that meets that, and then allows them to flex, allows them to move off of that, meaning I can now take this data, this value, this intelligence, this knowledge, and connect it into something else, and use that to build. Again, this is what we’ve seen in the past from a web point of view, it’s, establish a system, create value, extract that value, then build – add to that value by connection another system to that equation, and so-on, and so-on, and continue to build. That’s been the approach, and so from a platform point of view you have to build into it the capability that we talked about earlier, which is how we provide interoperability, how do we provide for security, how do we provide for flexibility, how do we provide for more automation to close those loops, to bring that expertise – a more automated expertise back to bear, and how that line changes what it’s doing from a day-to-day point of view.

Does that make sense?

Oh, it does, it does. And ABB is involved in so many different industries, in so many different areas, and I’d love to get your perspective, coming from Cisco and working in connectivity, you do deal with a lot of different industries, but if you’re dealing with TCPIP for instance, the protocols are fairly standard, but with ABB you’ve got electrification, and you’ve got power grids, industrial automation, and even robotics. How does the experience and the domain expertise fit into, or how do you ensure that the work that you are doing on the ability platform adds the most value, and integrates most effectively across all of these different domains, each of which may have a lot of unique and disparate technological characteristics?

One of the coolest things about being at ABB, in fact makes ABB so exciting right now, is we’re a company that has one foot in the industrial revolution, and the other foot in the energy revolution. Any company our size would be lucky to have an opportunity to pursue either one of those things. Those two things are what we do from a company perspective, and what’s fantastically to me being relatively new to ABB, is that the company’s genesis was established during the last really big time when those two things happened at the same time, about 125 years ago, during an industrial revolution, and an energy revolution, and that’s when the company was established.

And again there’s some legacy, a decade’s worth of expertise, and really specific deep knowledge inside of these segments, and then also a very aggressive stance in terms of, where do we go from here, how do we move forward, what is our vision for being here again, and being inside of these two revolutions, and understanding from the past what works and where things are at, but also critically then marrying that to, how do we evolve from here, and how do we really take advantage of and push these revolutions forward, in a way that not only benefits ABB and benefits these segments, but critically important for the company and for all of us is, how does it make us be better in the world that we live in? How do we accomplish what we want to get done from an industrial, or from an energy point of view, how do we achieve our needs but do that in a way that protects us, protects our work, protects our environment, protects our health, protects our safety? These are things that are energizing, in terms of bringing forward both the lessons from the past, as well as having a very strong opinion on how to cause that to occur in the future, and how to act on those specific things.

So, the blend here and really what we try to achieve with ability is, how to combine those two things; how do we take our deep expertise in industry, in automation, in energy, and how do we apply that to the usage of the very best lessons that come out of Silicon Valley, out of IT and communications, and take the bleeding edge there, and apply those two things together to create brand new instances of what can be existing patterns, meaning not the same song, but it resonates, it rhymes, how do you apply them into those patterns with new capabilities and new technologies in a way that achieves a radically improved result at lower cost, lower consumption of energy, lower pollution, etc. etc. to get more done with fewer expensive valuable resources, consumed in that process.

That balancing act of achieving that, and not only in a way that looks forward from a vision perspective, but that actually you can apply today, in a real world, for a real customer, for a real need today, achieving that sometimes really counter positioned forces, achieving that in a way that then allows you to continue to move forward, and add and built like we were talking about earlier, that’s the fun stuff, and doing that inside of these two revolutions is really the exciting part of being at ABB. So, I get to bring what I know how to do from that previous 15 years in IoT, and IT and communications, and I’m like a kid in a candy-store in terms of all the really cool things that ABB does! You mentioned several of them from robotics, to automation, marine ports, to industrial automation, to brand new microgrids of energy, and energy networking and distribution. Like I said, it’s a fulfillment of a vision that as I mentioned we saw a decade ago, where we saw how this technology and how these systems could be applied to really move the needle for not only industries, but for people, in an incredibly positive way. We’re seeing that show up now, and that’s the excitement.

Yeah, you mentioned the revolution in energy, and I wanted to drill into that a bit, and understand from your perspective. I had heard Rob Massoudi’s presentation recently on the rise of electric vehicles, and some of the changes ahead that that’s going to create. That’s a topic that’s near and dear to the hearts of Momenta team, and also some of the guests of our podcast, including Tony Seba and Guido who have talked quite a bit about that. I’d love to get your sense from your perspective on some of the big changes in the energy industry, because I think a lot of people who were maybe focused on IT and looking at other areas of the economy may not necessarily appreciate what’s happening. What does it mean for you as a technologist in terms of the potential challenges and opportunities ahead?

It’s really nothing short of absolutely everything is changing, jumping back to the analogy which we keep talking about, which is the universe changed for us over the previous 30 years, in the way that we think, the way that we compute, the way that we communicate, the universe changed, and the same thing is happening to us now in the energy space. There’re two really good examples of that, one you’ve mentioned, which is what’s happening from a transportation point of view. Everything that we know about transportation is an example of a change from an energy, as well as an automation perspective, everything from autonomous cars to fleet-driven transportation, to green and electrified cars, and also the hydrogen potential that’s available as well.

All of these things are massively changing a massive industry that we call transportation and logistics, and pretty much everything that we know is about to be, or is being challenged today on how that works, and how it will be impacted, and it has the potential, a very real potential and we’re already starting to see some of this show up where it will radically improve the amount of everything we can transport ourselves, as well as lots of things we want to move, and do so in a way that radically reduces traffic. There’s the example of 30 percent of cities traffic is based on people looking for parking, if we didn’t have to do that anymore, then all of a sudden, what do you do with 30 percent more capacity in your transportation system inside of a city? That’s an example. So, transportation is a great illumination of that potential.

The other one is actually on something I mentioned earlier, which is this notion of microgrids, and something that often in the industry is called energy of the service, and what that means, and what that points at is what we’re starting to see right now, is that green energy, and in particular solar, and of course wind is part of that, that plus storage, so batteries, and we’re talking about the same technology, battery technology that is being driven by our cell phones/smartphones. Those two things are combining so today, they’re starting to hit price points where for example, solar plus storage, solar plus batteries are hitting price points that are at the same price points as coal, they’re better than coal and are starting to encroach in on the price points of natural gas, which today are the standard of low-cost energy production. So, you can extrapolate from there and say it’s possible today for a lot of cases, for most of the roofs on our homes are capable of producing and storing more energy than they consume. So, what happens to the extra energy, what happens to that extra potential?

Now all of a sudden, my house is producing and storing more energy than I need, how do I sell that? Do I sell it? Who buys it? What’s the market look like? What does the network look like? What does the service provider look like inside of that world?

So, imagine a time which is actually not too far away where we have energy production and consumption that completely change, just like it changed for us 30 years ago in computing, networking, and communication, when we moved from mainframes to micro-computers, into the web and beyond, that same kind of transition is affecting energy and things that consume energy, which is everything. We’re facing that revolution, we’re right at the beginning of that of where the universe is changing for us. We are now embarking on that future, and how do we create that, and how do we use that in a way that again, not only gets done what we get done today, but imagine where roofs are producing more energy than we can consume, this produces our opportunity, and its doing it in a way that doesn’t consume our natural resources in the way that we have in the past, and the issues that are challenging us today because of that.

So, that’s a fantastic opportunity. And what does it look like? We don’t know, we’re just getting started in our process, but if we use the near past as lessons to how that universe changed in related industries, we’re going to see the same thing happen here, and that’s exciting. It’s absolutelyfascinating to see where we’re headed in that space, and to participate in that, and to help cause that to occur is incredibly exciting.

Yeah, I would have to agree, and your point about the cost curves taken, watching continual declines in the viability of solar, wind, plus storage as alternatives to non-renewables, its going to open up so much incredible potential. There’s application of course technology, advanced technology to the physical infrastructure and the grids, I think it provides huge opportunity. But there are other industries as well, a number of which ABB touches, robotics and automation are one of the really interesting areas recasting how manufacturing is envisioned frankly with deeper potential for intelligence augmentation, and augmentation of human capabilities.

Amongst your peers ABB I would say has a unique focus, or unique competency in robotics as an adjunct to your industrial automation, I’d love to get your perspective on some of the most important developments and themes that you see there.

Yes, it does, and it colors and affects everything, and everything we do, and ABB being one of the leaders in robotics, and also in something that’s commonly called collaborative robotics is reallyshaping the way that we see the way things go, not only from an automation point of view, but just a general industry in commercial segment point of view, it affects everything. It affects us, we’re applying it to ourselves in the way we do things, we’ve just announced a new robotics factory in Shanghai, we’re the largest robotics supplier in China, for China, we’re very proud of that, and we have to keep in front of that, stay in front of that and keep ahead. So, we now have a factory that we’re bringing online where it literally is a case of robots building robots, and we do that in a way that it’s not focused on automating jobs out of the equation. Far more important than that, in fact its not that at all, we live in industries and customers where we have not an over-supply of talent and people, we have an under-supply of talent and people, and that problem, that gap is getting worse for our customers and for companies in industrial and commercial segments.  

They have two problems, one is they’re facing an environment where the universe is changing, there’s new skills, new capabilities, new technologies to take on, new complexities, new things to tackle, and at the same time a workforce that is starting to retire, talented highly-skilled individuals that are retiring and effectively leaving with that knowledge. So, this gap is a real problem, in some cases it’s a crisis for some industries, and you simply can’t fill that gap with more people because there’s more that we need to get done. So, therefore this isn’t a matter of eliminating workforce, this is a matter of how do we keep up, how do we do more with frankly what amounts to is the same, or this growing gap from a skill and from a human resource point of view. So yes, the robots are coming, and thankfully! Robotics and automation are coming at a time where we need to do more, and we need to accomplish more with more capability.

Using automation, to go back to those processes, how can we provide for more automation inside of these processes, and not only optimize but then allow people to do more of what they automatically do better than machines. How do we apply people to do more of the kinds of things that are difficult for machines to accomplish on their own, or by themselves, and that example of collaborative robotics, how do you bring both things to bear on a problem, not to replace the human being, but to make that human being even more capable, to have their productivity go through the roof by the addition of this collaborative automation, collaborative robotics. That’s what we’re looking to achieve is, how do you deal with this growing human resources gap, andhow do we achieve more with the resources that we have, this isn’t a matter of getting rid of people, this is a matter of how do we do more, and how do we do that in a collaborative way, and do that together where we bring our capabilities, our technologies, our platforms, our robots, our systems, our automation, work together with our customers again to solve their particular problems, and do that in a way that takes advantage of all of these changes that are occurring in technology, in the industry and in the world at large. That’s what we’re tackling, and again that’s what’s super-exciting.

Are there industries that stand out to you in particular, that are notably affective in their use of advanced technologies, and embrace of forces that could potentially disrupt if they were not fully incorporated into refactoring, and rethinking business models?

Absolutely, we see massive changes occurring, and massive adoption of technology that is occurring in that energy space, the energy distribution space, around things like microgrids, and standardization, modulization of that grid, of that network. We’re seeing a huge amount of uptake of technology and productivity there. We see it in manufacturing, both processed manufacturing as well as discreet manufacturing, again across the board with the application of things like AI, advanced analytics to get deeper into problems, and deeper into analysis, and automation using of course things like robotics as well as process automation. We also see it very heavily in transportation that we touched on earlier, there’s just a massive revolution that’s occurring there in automation, and of course in terms of energy usage and consumption and the way that the energy flows from source to consumption points as well. So, its across the board but we absolutely see some hotspots, and there are others of course that we could dive into, but there are absolutely hotspots where there’s breakneck speed of adoption of technology for advancing those particular segments.

Let’s talk a bit about the application of AI and machine learning, I know that ABB has been pretty active in a number of investments in this area. How do the applications of some of the more advanced techniques impact your ability to create more value and solutions for customers, and are there any notable early adopters, or even disconnects in terms of perception and expectations, and reality that you’re seeing?

Sure, we can start at the disconnects, there is of course a lot of hype around AI and advanced analytics, and there is in some cases notions of just pushing a magic button and things get better, it’s of course not quite that simple. So, for us it really comes down to two different things, first and foremost, most importantly is, AI and advanced analytics serve to enable us to take what amounts to some really deep levels of expertise in particular segments, in particular industries, from ABB, from our experts, from the decades of knowledge that we’ve built up, and using that to apply it in a way that is far more scalable, so meaning you build that expertise into AI models that can then be expanded upon and distributed in ways in which its simply hard to do it with a single individual, with a single expert. So, you can capture some of that expertise, not all of it, but you can capture some of that expertise and make it more available to more people, for less cost, and how do you spread that out.

That comes to the second point which is something near and dear to my heart which is the platform. It’s how do you build this capability to hold or contain that expertise in AI, and in advanced analytics, and apply it in places where you couldn’t even think of applying it in the past. How do you get that to scale out, and to flow out into areas where more people can take advantage of that expertise, and use it to get done what they want to get done? A great example of that which connects back to our robotics work, where we’re not only using the platform to do things like pull information out of robots so that we can monitor them, remotely manage them, and provide for remote support for them, but then use advanced AI models to really know what to do in certain cases, in order to automate particular things that you might want to accomplish for the robots, so improving the way that the robot is maintained, or changing the way that the robot behaves inside of a particular process to make it more efficient.

If you do that in the right way, you do that with a platform, you can not only apply that capability for customers that are very large and have lots of infrastructure for themselves, and can support that kind of infrastructure, but you can also make that available to a whole new set of customers that may have a few robots, they may have just one, two, or three robots, and they can consume that as a service via the platform, meaning they can now get access to the same kinds of expertise at a much lower cost, and where they need it, where you have somewhere like a bakery that is deploying robots that move pallets around, they can now take advantage of that technology, and they’ve got a handful of robots. In the past they couldn’t have taken advantage of that technology, now today with AI and the platform and connecting it to the real systems they use, those robots, they now have access to a whole new capability, and a whole new value proposition that they didn’t have access to before. Again, that’s really exciting.

Where do you see the market going in the next 10 to 15 years? As you look at the work that you’re doing on the platform, and the solutions that are being developed; what are you optimistic about, and what are some of the concerns that keep you up at night.

The things that I’m optimistic about that I absolutely love are the things we’ve touched on here, which is how energy with our generation as well, the consumption of energy, really changes and affects us in a powerfully positive way. And, how we bring technology to bear on things like automation, how do we cause those new technologies and new capabilities to enhance what it is we want to get done, not to replace or get rid of, but to do more with the resources that we have. Those things I’m incredibly optimistic on, and like I said you hopefully a sense of how interesting and exciting we are, and I am, in that space. I use as an analogy there, again what we’ve seen over the last 15 to 25 years in the spaces that you and I both came out of, where we saw the universe change. What does our world look like today, and how does it differ from 25 years ago, well in some cases you can see the same kinds of patterns of some behaviour, but frankly everything else has changed, everything else is completely different and that’s been an amazing process.

We’ve got that same kind of thing ahead of us in the industrial and commercial segments. It’s not in the future, it’s happening right now. So, the things that keep me up at night, keep me concerned, are do we do that quickly enough? Do we manage that transition quickly enough, but do so in a way that really affects us positively? Do we do it in a way that isn’t gross, isn’t rough, isn’t abrupt, but do it in a way that causes those transitions to occur that really improve our industries, improve the way that we work, and most importantly improve people’s lives, everyone’s lives? Because we all live in this world, we’re all doing what we’re doing, we want to not only do it better, but do more of it, but do it in a way that protects us, protects our environment, and protects our future generations in a way that keeps us healthy and happy moving forward. I am incrediblyoptimistic on that front, because again, I’ve seen it before, not the same song, but it’s happened before, and I see the potential of where we are going, and that’s really what’s a lot of fun.

Yes, no doubt. Are there any interesting companies, or emerging technologies that you’re keeping your eye on?

Yes, typically I like to look outside of what’s right in front of me, for where things are coming from. I mentioned one which is incredibly obvious of something that’s affecting us, which is the Smartphone space, and the advances that have been made there in terms of battery technology, which is obviously impacting the energy conversation we were having earlier, in a way that has surprised a lot of people, continues to surprise a ton of people.

Another example of where I find it fascinating is the consumer drone market, the reason I say that is, not any one particular company, although there are of course great examples of companies like DGI, and others, but to me it’s another relevant space where they’re achieving some really interesting levels of scale and automation autonomy that are pretty surprising, kind of shocking when you see what $1,000 will buy you in terms of technology in a drone, and how that changes literally every year. Then you look and say, ‘Okay, how does that now impact what I can achieve, and what I can accomplish in other area’, maybe not drones, maybe they are drone-like things that I can apply that technology into, that to me is fascinating, that’s the place to look for those advances. We’ve seen the same kind of thing in the recent past, technologies like Raspberry Pi that radicallychanged the equations of how cheap you could make computing, and where you could put computing, and how you could afford to apply and put that intelligence into places that you really weren’t thinking of ever seeing before. And to me things, like I’ve said, consumer drones represent another point, another data point that’s on a different curve, in a different process in a different way, but we can learn a lot of things from that.

That’s really interesting. I recently interviewed George Matthew from Kesprey which is a company that uses drone technologies for industrial inspections, to look for corrosion and other types of changes, but employing big data and AI technologies to the images that can be collected, and itreally is remarkable how all these technologies are converging to create new opportunities. It’s pretty stunning.

Sean, its been great to get your insights on this whole wealth of disciplines and technology areas, I always like to wind up the interviews with a recommendation for our listeners of a good book or resource that you might share.

Sure, again it goes back for me to looking outside of what’s right in front of me. Recently I finished a book I just absolutely loved, it challenged a number of things that I thought I knew and brought me up to speed in another way in another industry, in another science that is just absolutely fascinating. It’s a book called, ‘The Gene: an intimate history’, it’s all about the history of the Gene, but also what’s happening today in genetics and technology applied to genes. It’s written by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a big book but it’s a fascinatingread, one of these things, it’s a page-turner because it reads a little bit like science fiction, because there have been so many advances there that are so radical, and so full of potential, it’s just an invigorating place to start thinking from, of how we’re going to be impacted again inside of what we’re heading into from a future point of view. But also, thinking about the challenges that they face, and the safety concerns, and the ethical concerns that they face in those industries which resonate, they provide fresh insight for the way that I think about the challenges that face us.

Wow, that’s an amazing recommendation, I’m going to have to check that out. I think the advances around computational genomics is just stunning, when you look at the declining cost, and the time that it takes to sequence a human genome. And yet as you open up, each insight leads into a whole universe of others, it’s a deep field onto itself. I share the interest, it sounds fascinating, there are so many great lessons that we can learn from other disciplines, cross-disciplinary thinking. That’s a great recommendation Sean.

It’s been a great discussion. Again, we’ve been speaking with Sean Parham, Group DP, and Head of Product Management for the ABB ability platform. I am Ed Maguire, Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, and if you have any questions please follow up with us, we’ll put the recommendations in the show notes.

Again Sean, I want to thank you and the team at ABB for being with us today.

Thank you, it’s been a real pleasure.



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