Q&A with ABB’s James Chalmers
Water treatment Digital Solutions Europe

Q&A with ABB’s James Chalmers

Thursday, 3 December 2020

James Chalmers, president, global water & wastewater sales – drives at ABB has recently joined the Aquatech Global Advisory Board. Here he speaks about the digitalisation trends he is witnessing in the water sector, including the use of augmented reality (AR).

Aquatech Online (AO): Congratulations on joining the Aquatech Advisory Board. What do you hope to bring to the table among the other thought leaders?

James Chalmers (JC): It's a great privilege to join such a diverse advisory board. When I was approached about the opportunity, I have to admit my first thought is what can I learn from the board. From CEOs to R&D directors, from large water companies to innovative start-ups, the experience and perspectives are vast on the board. After the first meeting, I was impressed. The different viewpoints, especially on trends and market needs, suggest that Aquatech has built a strong community to join together and solve global water challenges. I look forward to future meetings and seeing what value I can add to these topics.

AO: You've risen through the ranks at ABB to your current position as VP of global water and wastewater sales – drives. Where do you see the latest innovations when it comes to drives in water treatment?

JC: ABB has been at the forefront of energy savings in water for years. As well as finding ways to improve processes and make savings, recent innovations have come from the ability to pull more data from the devices and match them with relevant data from outside the pump house for example. To be clear: I am not one for gathering data for the sake it. I like to play the ‘so what’ game, repeating ‘so what’ until I get to the crunch of what we need and not just what is easily available. 

“When it comes to data, I always refer back to one of my father’s favourite stories about a drunk man looking for his keys under the lamp post.”

When it comes to data, I always refer back to one of my father's favourite stories about a drunk man looking for his keys under the lamp post. A passing policeman helps to look for a while until asking the man whether he is sure he lost the keys there. The drunk man looks up at the policeman and answers, with a straight face, that he lost the keys in the darkness, where there aren't any lamps.

The lesson of the story is: the drunk man knows the keys are not under the light, but it's the easiest place to look. In data terms, we should always approach projects with the final outcome in mind, rather than the short-term, easiest goal in reach. 

AO: Where else is the organisation focusing its R&D efforts in this area?

JC: Today, 60 per cent of our R&D employees are already focused on digital and software development. To expand our digital solutions offering, ABB will invest five per cent of its global revenues in R&D and digital and focus on developing specific, differentiated technologies. I expect this will result in a strengthened capability of our overall digital portfolio.

AO: You mentioned energy consumption savings, but this continues to be a high cost and challenge for water utilities to drive down. We’ve just reported on the UK water sector ambitions to become Net Zero in carbon by 2030. Where do you see innovation in this area?

JC: A key part of ABB's sustainability strategy is to contribute to a low-carbon society, in line with the Paris Agreement. ABB's main targets are to reach carbon neutrality in our operations by 2030 and to continue to support our customers to reduce their emissions.

For preserving resources, we aim to have at least 80 per cent of our products and solutions covered by a circularity approach by 2030, systematically reducing waste, increasing recycling and reusability, and improving product durability. 

AO: What potential do you see for augmented reality/virtual reality when it comes to water technology demonstrations?

JC: Preventative maintenance is a big area for us in the future, and augmented reality will play a big part in this. Imagine water engineers having a “maintenance guardian angel” sitting on their shoulders, not only helping to save time, resources and even lives, from a health and safety advisory role.

One example I always like to share on this is a collaboration between ABB and the Singapore water agency, PUB: 

This project is a great utility demonstration of the technical capability but is also being showcased as a way to attract young talent to the industry. After all, AR is still perceived as a futuristic, on-trend technology, and this case study really encapsulates the digital transformation underway in the water sector.

AO: The pandemic over the course of 2020 has resulted in incredible change for many people and industries. If you could point to a silver lining or something positive to come out from recent months, what would it be?

JC: The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the water sector, often underappreciated and undervalued. During global lockdowns, utility personnel continued to work and serve their communities. The push to remote working also accelerated the acceptance of digitalisation tools within the water sector. For example, remote monitoring of assets to reduce onsite visits has seen an increase, as well as the utilisation of cloud software.

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