Every day, 1 billion people move through buildings and cities in Schindler lifts and escalators, and now the nearly 150-year-old Swiss company is combining edge computing and machine learning to draw business insights from its millions of connected assets.
Speaking at Huawei connect in Shanghai this week, chief digital officer for Schindler, Michael Nilles, outlined how the company is using cutting-edge enterprise technology to get smarter about navigating the ups and downs of running an industrial business.
"Digital transformation does not come for free," said Nilles. "You have to first do some homework – you have to clean your house."
This ‘house cleaning’ began roughly six years ago, and started with consolidating a lot of legacy systems across its estate, which has 60,000 workers or close associates worldwide. Then Schindler set about standardising its internal processes, for example, across its supply chain.
But the "real challenge," says Nilles, was the 15 million old elevators it had in the field. Each of the older assets had to be retrofitted with sensors and edge computing devices to make them 'smart'.
Edge computing, in short, is where data processing happens at its source out on the 'edge' of the network. Co-developed between Huawei and Schindler, an edge computing solution is embedded in a lift or escalator and then communicates through an IoT gateway, feeding information out to the cloud.
General Electric’s Predix platform then makes sense of the information, allowing for Schindler to do things like predictive maintenance of assets.
"We have compute on this edge device, which is provided to us by Huawei, we developed it together over the course of the last few years," Nilles explained. "Edge is one of the most important technology innovations happening in the last couple of years and a field that is further being developed. Industrial machinery, industrial internet is not possible without edge computing."
"You need computing and intelligence close to the asset. You have cloud, where it all comes together, and then you can do your big data analytics and more sophisticated machine learning."
Introducing Schindler Ahead
The result is Schindler Ahead, launched earlier this year, a platform that has been developed for connecting equipment insights, customers, passengers and service technicians.
Tailored apps allow building owners or operators to check the status of their equipment, and updates can be received in real-time. The sum of this is drastically reduced downtime for customers, plus tailored services for its ‘passengers’.
"What’s very important in the industrial internet is that you’re deploying a solution that is future-ready," Nilles said. "Think about the Tesla model. The software is really where the big innovation is coming from, so you need to make sure you can update your edge [computing] and your assets."
Challenges and complexity
"We often say technology is easy but I can tell you with industrial internet, technology is a huge challenge with complexity," said Nilles. "You need the right partners, because you need to bring together mechanical, electronic, and digital worlds.
"Ecosystem is very important – traditionally you are not used to working in an ecosystem after many decades of trying to protect yourself, to keep your innovation internal. Now you need to work in this important ecosystem.
"And all this digitisation and connectivity, at the end of the day, has to bring a positive impact to the bottom line, so you really need to think about what’s the right business model."
Another challenge will be a familiar one for business owners: finding the right people.
Industrial engineers are often very talented with the mechanical and electric side of the equation, but aren't software experts. And enterprise IT staff are often used to legacy systems rather than the new way of working in the cloud with IoT or edge computing.
As part of its digital transformation programme, Schindler enlisted Huawei to help it move quickly into the realm of IoT. And experts from GE Digital were on hand to consult about all things cloud.
"There is a huge talent gap globally, and as you can imagine the industrial companies are not the ones where the talented IT people or digital people originally want to work for."
'Industrial User Internet'
Now that Schindler has connected its ‘internet of escalators’, what next? Consumer-facing tech might not be the first thing to cross your mind when you think of a company known mostly for dealing in lifts, but Schindler has plans to create new business cases from embracing this connectivity.
"We are thinking about what might be the next big thing, and for us this is what we call the Industrial User Internet," Nilles said. "That’s where the user of the industrial internet is the next big thing – for us, think about it: we are moving 1 billion passengers every day.
"To have them communicate with our equipment, 1 billion touchpoints every day would help them flow through the city, flow through buildings more conveniently, and allow them to have the right information about where they should be going – to have a better and seamless transportation experience than in the current world."