When Schneider Electric rolled out its latest digital offering at Hannover Messe, Germany, earlier this year, the leader in digital transformation in energy management and automation debuted it as a world first.
The solution, known as the Schneider Electric Exchange, is a global ecosystem of communities that connects experts and innovators across industry, software firms and start-ups. In creating the dual-purpose solution – it is billed as both technology resource and marketplace – Schneider Electric collaborated with partners, integrators and developers so it could deliver real-time control and operational efficiency, and empower companies to solve very specific business challenges.
“The way in which businesses tackle problems today has drastically changed from even just a decade ago,” says Schneider Electric’s Jérôme Firmin, a project manager whose focus is industrial automation. “Now, through digital platforms like Schneider Electric Exchange, we can seamlessly bring together communities in the service of problem-solving, collaboration and innovation.”
The platform provides users access to technical resources and tools to build and deploy digital solutions easily, while also managing data. The ability to scale offerings – broadening both geographic and market reach – is a ‘make or break’ moment for organizations, says Firmin.
Firmin says the platform rewrites the playbook on digital innovation by refocusing technology development, software iteration, and research and development on customer problems. Moreover, it delivers different value for different people. Users of the communities are likely to interact with facility managers, consultant engineers and system integrators, technology companies and software developers. Groups may use the platform for different purposes, from accessing design templates to community learning and knowledge sharing.
In an exclusive interview with CanadianManufacturing.com, Firmin provides practical insights on how to extract value from Industry 4.0.
Q: A lot of confusion abounds around terms like Industry 4.0, IoT, IIoT and AI. What is your approach to IIoT and Industry 4.0?
Firmin: Schneider Electric’s approach is to always start with the customer problem – not the technology. So, we see IoT (Internet of Things) as a way to solve these concrete business problems, but it can’t exist without the right technology to harness the data created by connected devices.
About 90% of data isn’t used for business insights today. Businesses need to extract this trapped value to deliver the real business value of IoT, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and Industry 4.0. AI (artificial intelligence) has the potential to capture this value and enable industry to balance energy and process efficiency at the same time — all in the face of constraints like regulations and market changes.
We keep cybersecurity top of mind, too, as we develop and deploy IoT solutions. For cybersecurity, there is a balance to find. Connectivity allows you to know what’s happening across the environment and, if necessary, to act quickly, but risks need to be mitigated.
Q: Companies face formidable challenges in the adoption of new technologies. How does the Schneider Electric Exchange enable them?
Firmin: The Schneider Electric Exchange enables companies to face these challenges and adopt new technologies in three ways: create, collaborate and scale. The platform provides technical resources and a toolbox to create application programming interfaces (API) and software development kits (SDK) to support full lifecycle from CapEx to OpEx, with our domain of expertise support. It also allows for collaboration by hosting a vibrant diverse ecosystem of communities and collaborators co-creating solutions to serve the full lifecycle. And finally, the platform provides a marketplace for the community to effectively and efficiently scale exponential growth opportunities, leveraging the scale and footprint of Schneider Electric and our partners.
Q: The platform includes Schneider’s EcoStruxure solutions, which is described as an open, interoperable, IoT-enabled system. In what way does the platform enable manufacturing plants to realize tangible value?
Firmin: Schneider Electric’s IoT-enabled architecture EcoStruxure is a three-tiered technology stack that delivers customer-centric solutions across four end-markets (industry, data centre, building, infrastructure) and six domains of expertise (power, building, data centre, plant, machine and grid). The technology stack includes connected assets which are intelligent products that serve as the foundation for smarter buildings and plants, edge control which is a control system that enable simple design, commissioning and monitoring, so there is less complexity to manage, as well as apps, analytics and services, which includes a full portfolio of hardware-agnostic software, apps, analytics and services to enable optimization and that work with any hardware, any systems and any control. These products, solutions and services are both on-premise or in the cloud, and we make sure that cybersecurity is meticulously integrated into every layer of the stack.
If you’re a manufacturer, staking your competitive claim as a digital enterprise is about making better use of data from connected equipment. Very often machines and factories are already connected on site, but now, we must scale up by connecting on-site assets to the cloud to leverage more intelligence, while drawing on artificial intelligence (AI) to train and re-train models.
AI allows us to make use of massive amounts of untapped data to improve performance while prioritizing energy projects. This approach results in asset and business insights that empower people enterprise-wide – both on the factory floor and in the front offices – while driving sustainability commitments. And this is a continuing lifecycle.
Most importantly, our customers are seeing tremendous impact when leveraging our EcoStruxure solutions. Dow Corning was able to reduce CapEx by 50% after implementing EcoStruxure Plant — and that’s just one example.
We continue to evolve our EcoStruxure platform features, making our products, equipment and systems smart and connected. We are bringing to the market a new category of offers called “EcoStruxure Advisors,” which combines software and digital services to solve real business problems, transforming raw data from connected systems in actionable insights for customers.
Q: How does Schneider Electric Exchange and EcoStruxure work together?
Firmin: Looking at customer problems through the lens of the entire ecosystem, enabled by Schneider Electric Exchange, makes EcoStruxure a much more relevant solution because each customer is trying to solve very specific problems and unique equations.
Whether it’s about optimization or zero downtime or preventive maintenance, we must line up a lot of different technology specialists with different abilities and expertise, and we are doing this in Schneider Electric Exchange.
We look at EcoStruxure from the perspective of technology that can solve customer challenges, leveraging very strong segment expertise. Together, Schneider Electric Exchange and EcoStruxure enable us to solve those incredibly difficult customer problems.
Q. As an energy and process efficiency solutions provider, what can your partners – Accenture, Claroty – do for you and for customers?
Firmin: We partnered with Accenture to activate our internal engagement model, which enables new levels of innovation efficiency to solve specific problems. Rather than building technology just for the sake of it, our businesses can launch digital projects in a practical, customer-centric manner. This collaborative approach with Accenture has allowed us to reduce our digital innovation cycle from 2-3 years to less than one year.
Schneider Electric’s Cybersecurity by Design framework includes internal operations of plants and distribution centres, customer base installations, and its vast network of partners and suppliers. We work with partners – such as Claroty – leading in OT infrastructure security to secure its factories. For example, by monitoring the production line, OT infrastructure and controls, alongside enterprise IT infrastructure.
But our partnerships don’t end there. We work with several other partners to help bring value to our clients, as well. For example, as part of the Schneider Electric Exchange community, Capgemini, offers expertise in Smart Leakage Management, which integrates innovative algorithms and multiple datasets on a versatile, open, and reusable platform. This capability helps water companies detect and pinpoint leaks faster from a mobile device.
Q: What trends do you see occurring with the implementation of IoT?
Firmin: The biggest evolution we’ve witnessed within the last few years is with Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a way to make the most of voluminous amounts of data from connected assets.
AI has moved from being a “bright and shiny new technology” to having concrete value for our business customers. It is essential for businesses to make use of all the data captured since IoT and industrial IoT has become so widespread but avoiding the data tsunami requires focus and a pragmatic approach.
AI applications can help customers understand what it really means to push forward new digital business models in a disruptive yet profitable way – allowing non-traditional ways to turn all that data into actual business insights.
Integrating an AI strategy can seem like a daunting task, but I recommend that any company embarking on this journey start with a pragmatic, practical approach to individual projects, and of course work with the right partners across the IoT ecosystem.
We’re also seeing a move back to the edge versus moving everything to the cloud. Businesses are using machine learning and edge analytics for real-time decision making close to the source of the data, especially in critical industrial environments.
While the cloud delivers highly scalable computing power, low-cost data storage, and easier access to that data, it isn’t always the right approach. With machine learning and edge analytics capabilities, does it make sense to push everything to the cloud, especially in critical environments? The answer is probably no.
So, we see the rise of IoT edge integrations – connected to back-office ERP systems to enhance the customer experience.
Q: How is Schneider implementing change across its own organization?
Firmin: Digital is inherent in Schneider Electric’s business strategy. To converge traditional DNA and digital DNA, we have partnered with Accenture to create a Digital Services Factory for our business to leverage. We partner with research and development teams to speed up development of digital offers. As a result, we’ve cut time from ideation to commercialization from 2-3 years to less than a year.
Our goal is to apply these same practices internally, bringing the approach of a startup. We believe in lean start-up and design thinking, coupled with a sense of urgency and accountability to bring a viable product to the market.