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Guido Jouret of ABB: Where innovation meets automation

The CDO reveals innovations that include "putting software in things where software has never existed."

Guido Jouret, chief digital officer for ABB, may have the coolest job in Silicon Valley. He leads digital strategy for a 130-year-old power and automation technology company that is adding digital infrastructure to the world’s energy and transportation systems.

Jouret sat down with the GreenBiz team to describe innovative projects including robotics, fast-charging transportation infrastructure and software-based building automation systems. He discussed his role, opportunities to digitally connect the industrial sector and how ABB compares to (and competes with) tech giants in Silicon Valley and beyond. 

Paul Carp: What is a chief digital officer and what does the role mean to you?

Guido Jouret: The chief digital officer is a relatively new role. We did a survey and found about 2,500 public companies that had a formally identified chief digital officer. When I speak with other companies, I find that chief digital officers are typically part evangelist and part technology enabler.

When I speak with other companies I find that chief digital officers are typically part evangelist and part technology enabler.
At ABB, I am at the intersection of business and technology strategy, especially with the wave of digitalization including things like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, blockchain, drones, basically you-name-it. What's really powerful is when you think about how it changes the way we do business, how it changes the products we sell, the services we enable and the way we interact with customers.

Carp: What are the biggest challenges that ABB is facing today?

Jouret: The main challenge for pretty much any company today is around the technology innovations in the consumer space. We have clear examples of Airbnb, Uber and others who have enabled technology platforms to connect supply and demand across assets that were not utilized and in some cases disrupt entire industries. In the industrial space, people tend to be fairly loyal to their assets and they last a long time. So, as a result, the incumbent companies that make the assets have some inherent advantages. But that doesn't mean that we should be complacent.

The biggest challenge is that standing still or doing nothing is not an option. So as the digital wave progresses, we embrace it because it has become the new normal. It creates new opportunities and also new threats. I think it needs to be an all of the above set of strategies.

Guido Jouret headshot

Carp: What are you the most excited about at ABB?

Jouret: What I'm most excited about is the fact that if you go back and look at the last 15 years, the forefront of technology innovation has been the consumer. Smartphones, broadband, augmented reality, AI, blockchain, drones — all of the cool toys went to the consumer. However, the reality is that in the consumer space, a lot of these things don't really have a great ROI or business case.

Take any one of those consumer technologies and there's a fantastic ROI and multiple use cases right now in the industrial space. Now, I have these technologies at my fingertips, at a power and a price point that was just inconceivable even a few years ago. There’s a big opportunity to apply them to jobs that are dirty, difficult or dangerous and achieve a wonderful ROI for our customers.

Carp: How does ABB integrate sustainability into your broader product suite? 

Jouret: First, part of our portfolio is about the transmission and distribution of electricity so we are pushing heavily with distributed energy for the greening of the grid. Second, we are very involved in the electrification of all forms of transportation including trains, ships, buses and now cars. Third, we're involved in smart buildings, including managing fluctuations in energy demand, production and storage inside a building — that's everything from solar panels on the roof to batteries in the basement to vehicle-to-grid. 

In all of those use cases, we believe that the digital component is key because as soon as you have volatility, either in supply or in demand, that requires digital connectivity.

Carp: What's an example of an innovative ABB project that our audience of sustainability and energy leaders has never heard of?

Jouret: One of them is our fast-charging bus system and the reason why that's interesting is because buses, unlike cars, operate continuously throughout the day. So, unlike a passenger car, buses have a high utilization rate and pretty much have a load all the time. 

If you put a big battery on the bus, you end up lugging this battery around so you’ll see diminishing returns. We created a flash-charging system that acts like an arm that comes down, drops in on top of the bus and flash charges a super-capacitor which can dump a lot of electrons very quickly into a metal plate. It then trickle-feeds into small batteries that are on the bus and it provides enough juice to get the bus to the next bus station, which is where this process repeats.

The second example is we are putting software in things where software has never existed. ABB has developed a control system that goes on the circuit breaker in any large commercial building or apartment building. By making it smart, all of a sudden you can measure the power quality coming into the building and measure the consumption on all of the breakers. So, in an apartment building, you can effectively sub-meter and actually determine which part of the building is consuming energy across individual apartments and tenants. If it's a factory, it might be a different line or a different part of the factory.

The smart circuit breaker will become the brains of the new smart building and potentially also act as a small microgrid. This is really interesting because what was essentially a piece of wiring that connected things is now acting as an intelligent brain of a building.

Carp: Is Silicon Valley paying enough attention to privacy and data security? What is ABB doing about that? 

Jouret: The way we build our ABB ability digital solutions, we separate customer identity data from customer measurement data. We also make it very clear that when a customer chooses to no longer be a customer, we will commit to removing all of their data.

We're hearing from customers that they appreciate the clarity on our data use strategy and the fact that we're taking a stance. This is a voluntary stance since this not something that Washington or the EU has mandated for us.

Carp: What's your pitch in terms of competing for talent in Silicon Valley against Google, Facebook, some of the other giants?

Jouret: The pitch is simple. A lot of technology companies that are extremely well-known have a big advantage over B2B companies like ABB. What most people who go to work there don't realize is that over 90 percent of people who work in those companies are there to do one thing, which is to maximize click-through rates on ads.

So, what I tell people is, "Well, you can go there and do that or you can apply your educational qualifications to solving some of the world’s biggest problems including greening the grid, electrifying transportation, fighting pollution, making clean water available, combating climate change with infrastructure and helping to solve how we're going to feed a planet of 9 billion with urban farming and hydroponics.”

ABB is behind all of those big movements, and millennials want purpose-driven jobs to make sure they're working something material and important to them and to society.

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