9 Big Bets

Chief Technology Officer Prith Banerjee puts his money down on potential game-changers.

ABB Chief Technology Officer Prith Banerjee recently hit the one-year mark with the company, and one of the things he’s emphasized most is the importance of taking “big bets.”  As the name implies, these are moon shot-type projects–high risk, but high reward.

Attendees to Banerjee’s session at Automation & Power World yesterday were treated to an inside look at some of the big bets currently being researched.

1. Bulk power transmission over long distance.  It sounds obvious, but we’re not talking about incremental improvements on today’s largest lines.  The vision is of cables in the 3-10 GW range, large enough to carry the output of a dozen large power plants over very long (>1,000 miles) distances.

2. The Power Cloud.  This refers to HVDC converter stations, which currently require about the same footprint as an apartment building.  If you could reduce the size by a factor of 10, you’d really have something.  Research will focus on creating a condensed collection of semiconductors, capacitors, controls and coolers all submerged in an advanced insulation media.

3. Active sites.  Distributed generation like rooftop solar is already here, but for it to become an integral part of all buildings, we’ll need easy-to-use engineering tools and automation systems to streamline the design and build process as well as operate the generation facility in harmony with the rest of the building and surrounding grid.

4. Big data.  OK, this one was maybe a bit obvious, but Banerjee talked specifically about integrating “unstructured” data streams like video with “things you can put in rows and columns in a databases.”  Important to note: unstructured data makes up 90% of all the data being created online today.  The objective is a scalable system architecture that can handle petabyte-size data flows.

5. Un-man the site.  Mostly, this is about safety.  Remote analysis and diagnostics are already being used in a number of applications, but Banerjee is envisioning a drastic reduction in the number of people working in hazardous and harsh environments such as mining, oil and gas and remote service installations.

6. Single-day robot integration.   Bannerjee’s admitted favorite of the group, this one looks to make robots a lot easier to work with… as coworkers.  Better grippers, better artificial intelligence, more sophisticated sensing (for safety)–all of these will have to be on the menu.

7. Automation cloud.  CRM and HR systems have already moved to the cloud—why not automation?  The main challenge is latency, but if millisecond response can be achieved, why not indeed?

8. Rethinking the drive-motor-process power train.  Presently a given application is designed using motors and drives that, while perhaps tailored to serve a particular market, still are not specific to that particular application.  This idea suggests that the process itself should be part of an engineered whole with the motor and drive.

9. Next-generation transformer technology.  Smaller footprint, environmentally friendly insulation materials, embedded monitoring and diagnostic capabilities–these are perhaps more evolutionary than revolutionary, but the impact could still be significant.

If any one of these succeeds to its full potential, the payoff could be in the billions.



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