Working together is one of the keys to success. That is also true for a company full of technicians who are used to thinking in silos.’ So says Alfons Goos, Managing Director of ABB Benelux. TomorrowLab has been tasked with drawing ABB out of its cocoon.
We work mainly at an operational level, and only for B2B clients. We are not as well known in Belgium as Siemens, for example, which also serves consumers. This may sound funny, but I always say that you only see ABB if you open a circuit board.’ Alfons Goos laughs about it, but is also a bit rueful.
Technology must create added value, and that value can differ from one player to the next.
ABB is a pioneer in all sorts of energy technology and automation. ‘Technologically, everything is possible today. Our engineers come up with the most fantastic applications, but how do you know if there is any demand for it? In the past, with Smart Grid (a smart electricity network, editor’s note) we spent too much time discussing technology. That’s why in the end things didn’t work out with Smart Grid. We had lost sight of the added value for the end user. In the end, we never sold a Smart Grid, only the components. Now after five, six years, interest in a Smart Grid is coming back again, but under another name: Smart Energy.’
‘Technology must create added value, and that value can differ from one player to the next. What will they use? What is the earning model? It doesn’t always have to be about money, the focus can also be on comfort, safety or the climate. But who is holding the mirror up to us? We are a company of engineers, who look at technology in an entirely different way.’
For that very reason, three years ago ABB knocked on the door of TomorrowLab. The aim was to look at the future with strategic exercises, but also and above all to broaden the horizon. ‘TomorrowLab is an open, independent collaboration platform. We did not turn to it in order to promote our products, but to try out ideas, think together and get some help with them. We have our own experience centre here in Belgium, but that’s at ABB.
You not only get to know each other well but you also learn a lot from each other.
TomorrowLab is at an entirely different level’. Joachim De Vos, managing director of TomorrowLab adds: ‘We offer a neutral platform which everyone can enter from the level of their own expertise. It’s not about sectors or policy: people respect each other and share their vision of the future from their own standpoint. This way you not only get to know each other well but you learn a lot from each other.’
TomorrowLab organized various round tables, including about public transport, the active house, e-mobility, energy efficiency and public space. ABB was a very enthusiastic participant, and Alfons Coos suddenly found himself sitting at the table with the Farmers’ Union. An eye-opener, he said. ‘Their approach is highly innovative. Innovation is not always about products, but can also involve processes.
Through these sorts of conversations, you also gain a better understanding of what challenges are facing your sector. Seeing how digitalization is moving forward in agriculture as well is something I never expected’. Joachim De Vos says that ‘We also look at the human aspect, interconnections, sharing information, without always being concerned about generating business. Colruyt had questions about ‘cobots’, or collaborative robots, for example. We have ABB on board, who is a specialist in robots. So we brought the parties together. All our partners are in search of information and answers for the future, after all.
Toward concrete innovation projects…
Alfons Coos: We were able to work with parties outside the rigid project framework that is usual in business. You get to know each other and have an exchange within an informal context. We are also doing something similar, and how are you handling it? At that point you are in the pre-trajectory – that’s important, you can get started with that. If you receive a call for tender, then everything is already laid down and there is very little room for manoeuvre. If everyone knows that you are working on an experimental level, then you realize it may also go awry. If you have a concrete project with an investment dossier that has already been through the management committee, then there is no space for things to go wrong.’
Ideas from the round tables and the strategic thought experiments have since been transposed into concrete projects. You no longer have to open up a fuse box in order to see ABB. Anyone who enters the TomorrowLab site in Vilvoorde can see the first Fast Solar Charging Station of Belgium. With a high speed charger by ABB that can recharge an electric car up to 80% in 15 minutes. TomorrowLab put ABB in touch with Mutec and Willy Naessens for the construction of the car port.
Inside, in LivingTomorrow, the last touches are being put to the demo configuration of the Smart Home, with an intelligent system that can run your household with optimal energy efficiency. Yet another ‘first’, the new concept of Smart Enclosure.