One eye outside the box and one eye on the future

Sometimes innovation and the way forward are right in front of you

Some of the world’s greatest breakthroughs have happened by accident. Penicillin, for example, would not have been discovered if Alexander Fleming had not left a dirty petri dish in his lab while on vacation for several weeks, allowing mold to grow and repel bacteria. And Lindt chocolate would not be as smooth and creamy if Rudolphe Lindt had remembered to turn off the mixer before turning in for the night. Many times, however, inspiration and innovation work the opposite way, as a result of hard work over a long time while keeping “one eye outside the box.”

This was how I started to develop and work with Virtual Reality (VR) or “gaming” technology to enhance the engineering and design processes here in the Grid Integration unit of ABB’s Power Grids division in Vasteras, Sweden. It started out small, literally as a demo that I brought in on my cell phone and a pair of VR goggles that I bought for $20. Now, 18 months later, after a lot of hard work and support from colleagues at ABB as well as ABB’s Lighthouse program*, which was set up to encourage and support innovative ideas at ABB, I am now Technology Manager for a new organization within the Power Grids division called Applied Visual Technology (AVT). 

We oversee the ways that VR, together with other technologies, such as Augmented Reality (AR), Artifical Intelligence (AI) and web/mobile applications, and can be used across a range of applications to support customer planning and partnering as well as product and system sales and services. That includes using our technologies in an interactive way throughout the sales and design stages, from planning all the way to foreseeing future flaws during the engineering process.

Even though most people may not be familiar with VR technology, the way we came up with the idea or innovation, however, can be used anywhere.

I work in the Grid Integration unit of ABB’s Power Grids division in Västerås. I have a degree in constructional engineering and have always had one eye on the start-up ecosystem. From the start at ABB, I was convinced we could do more with technology. We made these amazing 3D models of plants but only used them to create 2-D drawings, hundreds of them. The 3D models were more of a complement to the drawings, and I saw it that it should be the other way around. The 3D CAD software that we were using was also very heavy and it was impossible to share our models with other colleagues except those who had the same software.

I knew that to be innovative we would need to think outside the box. For me, that meant looking in my spare time at what the gaming industry has done and experimenting at home.  Safety is always a big concern when building substations, so first I focused on how we could visualize our models with even better safety in mind, and, at the same time, view them in a more user-friendly digital way. I used to play a lot of video games and have always been intrigued with the enthusiasm that games can create in you. You always remember every detail and every step you take in games like Call of Duty, FIFA and Final Fantasy. So I asked myself, why can’t we create the same enthusiasm by virtually walking around in a power installation with a gaming control?

VR technology like HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Samsung GearVR, etc, allows you to create worlds and join others online to fend off Zombies and other “combatants.” Architecture firms have been using VR technology to help clients visualize designs, and I had a feeling we could use our 3D models to create virtual worlds that others could join, both online and offline, to help customers and builders visualize a project, to create an online portfolio of all our projects and to create a great selling tool for our sales force.

So, back to my cell-phone demo. It got a lot of positive feedback and momentum, and, over the course of the year, I got a lot of support from ABB – good equipment and a team. I also got to demonstrate our solutions to important visitors, and we received funding to develop the AVT products that we are using today.

We are now using VR technology to globally showcase and collaborate on our projects, to help in the design process and as a sales tool.

In the design process, VR technology saves a lot of time and money. When customers can put on a VR headset and walk around as an “avatar,” within the virtual world of a project, they can understand it much better than with a 2-D drawing. If something doesn’t fit, or is a safety concern, we can change it in the design phase, when it’s more cost-effective. And just like video games, where players meet online to play together from remote locations, we have set up virtual “collaboration rooms” in Turgi, Chennai, Beijing, Ludvika and Västerås. In these online rooms, collaborators and customers can now “walk” inside the virtual power plant as avatars, together, even though one person is in China and the other is in Sweden.

VR technology is also helping us revolutionize the way we interact with our customers during the sales process. We used to only have PowerPoint presentations, but now the customer can put on VR goggles and virtually “walk” around a plant years before installation. For the future we see a lot of applications.

Who knows where it will go, but we will continue to keep “one eye outside the box,” to make sure we keep innovating.


Related links:

Trade press release: ABB demonstrates digital future of power grid design and planning

Web page: Substations and electrification

Web page: FACTS (Flexible Alternating Current Transmission Systems)

Web page: ABB at Cigré 2018



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About the author

Jeton Aliu

Jeton earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Construction Engineering and Economics in Sweden and came to ABB shortly afterwards and has worked in ABB’s mechanical design department for four years. Recently, his team applied state of the art gaming technologies to the CAD drawings, thus creating new ways of performing design reviews and enabling easier access to the CAD models. He is now Director of Applied, AI and New Technology. He constantly strives to look into future technologies and seek how these can be implemented and benefit our business.
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