IBM and ABB Group's Strategic Partnership Provides for Comprehensive Industry 4.0 Support

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3Q 2017 | IN-4658

At this time, no one company is capable of supporting the complete Industry 4.0 requirements spectrum. However, with its ‘ABB Ability’ Internet of Things (IoT) and industrial collaboration software platform, along with a wide array of robots, industrial automation technologies, and sensing systems, ABB Group already has much of the Industry 4.0 solution stack in-house. What the company lacks is advanced analytics and machine learning support. Enter IBM.

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Strategic Partnership


ABB Group, the US$33 billion automation technology firm, has announced a strategic partnership with IBM to create a suite of new products and services for the manufacturing, transportation, and utilities sectors. Specifically, the two companies will develop solutions enabled by the combination of ‘ABB Ability’, an IoT and industrial collaboration software platform, and IBM Watson’s cognitive computing solutions stack.

Artificial Intelligence Meet IoT


IBM’s early investments and corporate emphasis on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning initiatives have resulted in a well-earned reputation for leadership in both academic and commercial cognitive computing. The computer giant boasts of multiple dedicated research groups focused on machine learning, deep learning, and other subjects (the Watson Group, for example), as well as a number of sector-specific, commercial cognitive solutions, often available as a service, along with cross-industry, foundational capabilities, which are also available as services.

IBM’s wide range of cognitive solutions is the result of internal development as well as acquisitions such as the company’s March 2015 purchase of AlchemyAPI, a provider of AI-based text analysis and computer-vision cloud services. Strategic partnerships, such as that formed with ABB Group, represent a third method of expanding product offerings.

For its part, ABB Ability provides a portfolio of over 180 cross-industry digital solutions for interconnecting industrial devices and control systems as well as planning, monitoring, and optimizing processes in real time. The company is also the second largest producer of industrial robots in the world, and it offers many other classes of industrial automation technology.

IBM representatives have publicly stated that the first two joint industry solutions powered by ABB Ability and IBM Watson will bring real-time cognitive insights to the factory floor and smart grids. Currently, ABB Group employs Microsoft Azure as the cloud infrastructure on which the ABB Ability applications are developed and executed. It is not known whether the ABB Group/IBM partnership will result in a complete changeover to an IBM’s Bluemix cloud infrastructure, but it is likely that ABB Ability will be supported on IBM Bluemix at some point.

The Complete Industry 4.0 Capabilities Spectrum


The ABB Group/IBM strategic partnership is perfectly in keeping with the incremental approach technology providers are using to deliver support for the tenets of Industry 4.0 in their solution sets. The phrase “Industry 4.0” (or Industrie 4.0) was the formal name given by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research in 2011 to a new era of industrial digitalization, particularly as applied to manufacturing. Industry 4.0 represents a distinct departure from the current state-of-the-practice involving simple programmable automation, instead emphasizing intelligent, integrated automation. For manufacturing, Industry 4.0 approaches require the following:

  • Robotics and Automation: Robots and other classes of automation technology are used to automate “dull, dirty, or dangerous” tasks, but there are also processes in which computerized mechanization can add value (improved efficiency, efficacy, quality, and more).
  • Pervasive Sensing: Robots and other automation technologies, as well as other aspects of manufacturing production facilities, are highly sensored, ensuring the continuous collection of run-time data for further analysis as well as a data source for developing machine learning systems.
  • Ubiquitous Connectivity: All manufacturing equipment and sensors within production work cells, even extending throughout manufacturing facilities, are centrally connected and often interconnected to each other.
  • Data Analytics: There is a long history in manufacturing of collecting data and then using business intelligence (BI) and enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) tools to monitor and improve manufacturing operational performance, often as part of manufacturing operations management (MOM) programs. With the advent of industrial Internet of things initiatives and architectures, massive volumes of low-level industrial automation process data is captured in real time. This data can then be used for ex post facto analysis and performance enhancement or, going forward, real-time, autonomous optimization.
  • AI/Machine Learning: Machine learning techniques are applied as deemed necessary to improve process performance, increase product quality, reduce system downtime, and more.

Industry 4.0 is characterized by the bridging of the cyber and the physical, the digitalization of manufacturing for the factory of the future. As noted above, the technological enablers for Industry 4.0 are robotics and automation technologies; widespread connectivity; IoT architectures supporting massive numbers of sensor-enabled, uniquely addressable “things;” data analytics; and machine learning. At this time, no one company is capable of supporting the complete Industry 4.0 requirements spectrum, and perhaps there never will be one capable of doing so.

At this time, industrial technology solution providers are emphasizing the connectivity component of the Industry 4.0 solutions stack, often through partnerships. Recent announcements from Rethink Robotics, Fanuc, and Yamaha provide examples. With its ABB Ability platform, wide array of robots, industrial automation technologies, and sensing systems, ABB Group already has much of the Industry 4.0 solution stack in-house.What the company lacks is advanced analytics and machine learning support, areas where IBM’s Watson Group is strong. For its part, IBM Watson has made inroads into the healthcare, biotech, and publishing verticals. The agreement with ABB Group allows IBM to expand into the manufacturing, transportation, and utilities sectors, but more importantly, IBM has aligned itself with a strategic partner with deep roots in the industrial automation sector, along with a long-standing reputation for quality in these same industries.


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