ABB Smart Sensors Unlock Energy Savings, Cut Unplanned Downtime

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ABB brought CleanTechnica to Switzerland to show off a wide array of the products and services ABB offers, as a way for us to visualize the future through the eyes of ABB. I sat down over dinner with Reiner Schoenrock, ABB Vice President of Strategic Product and Innovation Communications, to talk about the product he views as the most exciting thing ABB is developing today — the “Smart Sensor.”

Smart Sensor Origins

This Smart Sensor was born out of an internal competition that was triggered in response to an ABB leadership review of a “Bluetooth-connected” toothbrush. The ABB team thought that if a toothbrush could be turned into a smart device that added value to consumers, how much more value could be gained from adding intelligence to ABB’s equipment?

The competition was between three internal ABB teams: Team ABB, Team ABB Automotive, and Team ABB Consumer Products, with a very aggressive schedule and very stretching financial objectives. The teams first developed a product that met the functional objectives but was priced out of the market at around $800 per unit. A group of engineers were again locked in a room (figuratively) to solve the challenge and knocked the floor out from under the price with the new and improved unit coming in at $50 each!

ABB Vice President of Strategic Product and Innovation Communications Reiner Schoenrock shows off the ABB Smart Sensor

The resulting Smart Sensor is essentially a bolt-on brain for motors and other electrical devices that adds data collection via a suite of 7 sensors that collect data on 11 specific points — all geared at putting a finger on the pulse of the equipment. ABB then throws its significant knowledge of motors at the data, pulling key pieces of the data set to the cloud via an integrated bluetooth radio that is interpreted through ABB’s Enterprise Software into meaningful insights into the health of the equipment.

Less Unplanned Downtime

Adding a brain and communication with the cloud to ABB’s devices doesn’t just allow the devices to react and send for help when it goes down, but it truly transforms the equipment from a dumb motor into an intelligent piece of what ABB calls the Internet of Things, Services, and People. The comprehensive approach to the sensor that ABB has taken allows the motor to call for help before it fails, delivering an estimated 70% reduction in unplanned motor downtime.

In the real world, this translates to huge, real savings to the bottom line — cutting out unplanned downtime means more productivity out of the connected equipment and less unplanned maintenance overtime, which is also the time when workers are more likely to get hurt … so safety incidents go down as well. Dropping these smart sensors into every motor in a manufacturing line also means that the overall efficiency and predictability of the line goes up, meaning inventories of raw and finished goods can be reduced as a result of more stable production cycles.

Improved Motor Efficiency

Tracking motor performance over time allows for efficiency to be optimized as well, to the tune of a 10% increase in motor efficiency. It’s not hard to imagine how these improvements can be realized, as most motors today are little more than “on” or “off” … working or not.

With energy costs rising all the time, real, measurable improvements in efficiency very quickly turn into lower electricity bills.

While it may not be clear how this technology can make a meaningful impact via a single motor or even an entire manufacturing plant, with 300 million motors installed around the world today, these savings have the potential to make a huge impact, not just on the bottom line but on global emissions. ABB CEO Dr. Ulrich Spiesshofer shared in our lunch together that adding Smart Sensors on all of these motors and realizing the projected efficiency improvements would singlehandedly offset the output of all nuclear plants in the world today.

I would personally levy these efficiency improvements against the likes of coal-fired generation and other fossil fuels, but the bottom line message is that these Smart Sensors are an extremely effective way of getting rid of energy consumption by improving the efficiency of existing assets around the world with a single technology. This drives home a point that Dr. Spiesshofer made to President Obama at the Hanover Fair when he showed off the Smart Sensor — that we don’t need the breakthrough technologies of tomorrow to fight climate change; we just need to aggressively install the technologies we already have today and change will come.

With ABB motors already on board, keep an eye out for Smart Sensors on the traction motors of ABB-powered electric trains.

Extended Motor Life

Finally, the Smart Sensor promises to extend the life of the motor by 30% … and again, this delivers savings across the board. Maximizing the life of existing assets squeezes the most value out of the capital used to purchase them in the first place. Why buy new motors if we can get more out of the ones we already have? Exactly.

The Smart Sensor In Real Life

The ABB CEO shared an example of a paper plant (something I’m very familiar with, having worked in one for over 15 years) with hundreds of motors. Do you think they are all operating at their peak? Are any of them going to fail today? How about tomorrow? Next week? This is the exact question manufacturing leaders all around the world are asking — and not just in paper products.

Imagine the full fleet of motors in any given manufacturing plant and inject them all with the power of the cloud. It’s not abstract anymore, but completely practical. Dropping a Smart Sensor onto a fleet of motors across an operating plant instantly transforms an army of drone motors in a plant from liabilities that can fail at any moment into a team of brilliant operatives that are continuously in touch with each other and telling you how they are feeling and how they are running.

The Connected Future

I asked if they were looking to put them on other products and Dr. Spiesshofer responded enthusiastically, “Yes!” Smart Sensors are making their way into ABB products across the full lineup. If it’s valuable for a $500 motor to tell an operator it’s about to fail, how much more value should we expect from a grid-critical transformer?

It’s clear that ABB envisions a smart, connected future where, not just motors, but electrical devices of just about every size and shape talk to each other and to the cloud, and the Smart Sensor is the first big step in that direction. It’s very easy to imagine a world where motors request service before they fail, transformers dynamically, intelligently load balance to maximize the total system efficiency, and grids can balance across several regions based on the performance of individual infrastructure components.

Expect to see Smart Sensors bundled with ABB Cloud Intelligence popping up everywhere. Connected, intelligent devices are the future … and, by all measures, ABB is moving aggressively into the market. This supports what ABB said many times through the tour: “ABB is a primary technology leader.”

Disclaimer: ABB hosted CleanTechnica on a tour of  Switzerland to showcase a broad sampling of its technologies across the country, which included the review of the Smart Sensor. CleanTechnica was not obligated to write about the trip at all or about specific topics from the trip.

Images Credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica 

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Kyle Field

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

Kyle Field has 1638 posts and counting. See all posts by Kyle Field

3 thoughts on “ABB Smart Sensors Unlock Energy Savings, Cut Unplanned Downtime

  • Cool stuff. I used to buy their motors to drive lube oil pumps and their generators to couple to expansion turbines. They’re a strong company that delivers (basically they deliver the spec defined product on time, unfortunately not all custom engineering manufacturers can do this).

    Where does this data go? Does the end user get an interface to see this or does it go back to ABB?

  • I don’t know if using Bluetooth as the communications part of an industrial local network is original, but it certainly looks clever. Different bits of machinery are typically close together and don’t move, and the amount of data needed for intelligent control is not huge, so wireless Bluetooth avoids rewiring or an expensive bespoke network. We can assume there is some performance penalty for the low bandwidth, but it may well be acceptable.

  • I used to work on underground pipelines and developed a communication system using the pipe as a conductor, with earth return. I ran the system at 0.5 baud. This was entirely adequate. One of the tasks only required 50 microbaud – it was to turn a remote tap on or off six hours in the future. So industrial processes, in certain circumstances, do not require high communication rates. Bluetooth speeds are entirely adequate for motor monitoring, after a power-on delay for discovery.

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