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Schneider Electric's New CTO Is Earmarking IT/OT Convergence as the Future

Schneider Electric's New CTO Is Earmarking IT/OT Convergence as the Future

Schneider Electric recently appointed Prith Banerjee as chief technology officer to push the company's current trajectory from being just an industrial electronics, automation, and energy management supplier into a brave new world of smart industry, where operational technology (OT) is converging with information technology, driven by the Internet of Things.

Banerjee has spent time at HP Labs, working on sustainable data centers; ABB, where he examined energy management systems for buildings; and Accenture, focusing on the IoT. All of his accumulated knowledge, especially in energy and sustainability, will figure prominently in Schneider Electric's strategic thrust into IT/OT convergence.

Before all of that, Banerjee spent 22 years in academia, as head of the electrical engineering department at Northwestern University and then as a dean at U of I Chicago. His involvement in two software startups "changed my life. That's when I became passionate about building products," he said, which led his transition to industry.

Now, as CTO of Schneider Electric, Banerjee recently spoke with Design News one-on-one. He remarked, "Jean-Pascal (Tricoire, chairman and CEO) is taking the company to the forefront of technology in a space that is most important to the world. If you look at the problems facing the planet, like food and water, energy is at the core. These are societal issues, these are things that matter."

Looking to "mutualize" internal departments

One of the things Banerjee wants to look at in the $30 billion company with 170,000 employees and a $1.5 billion R&D budget is organizational structure, with an eye toward increased collaboration and improved ROI. In any R&D-driven organization, there is a need to deepen competency centers, maintain cohesive teams, and cross-pollinate knowledge. Indeed, the very promise of the IT/OT convergence that Banerjee cites as a key strategic imperative can be realized by breaking through functional silos that characterize so many companies and organizations.

Schneider Electric has, for example, expertise in building switches and circuit breakers ranging from those in your basement fuse box to the massive ones used by utilities, as well as the intermediate-sized ones found in data centers. Banerjee sees opportunities to leverage the expertise across the company's various lines of business. In Schneider Electric's in-house jargon, that's called "mutualizing."

Organizational strategic alignment seems to be Banerjee's predisposition. Even back at HP Labs, he reportedly "allowed researchers to move more freely between projects."

Schneider Electric has 19 million product assets, ranging across circuit breakers, transformers, switchgears, panels, and power electronics, to name a few. All of these could potentially become smart in the IoT. Onboard devices could read voltages, current, temperatures and transmit them to the cloud, where they can be stored and analyzed.

Banerjee says he sees "great opportunities for collaboration and return on investment" in connected data analytics for the company's entire portfolio.

]]>The IoT is the ultimate change agent

Banerjee talked about other important trends. Besides requiring multidisciplinary talent, companies will need to have socioeconomic impact. "Millennials and Gen-Xers are motivated to work for socially responsible companies," Banerjee said. "Corporate social responsibility (CSR), for them, is more than a checkbox. At Schneider Electric, sustainability is a key performance indicator that is tracked, and performance bonuses for top executives are tied to it along with growth and profit."

He is proud of the ranking that Schneider Electric has received on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. One of his goals is to raise the public profile of Schneider Electric, which he calls "the best kept secret" in the world of technology. "This will help us to recruit the kind of multidisciplinary talent we are going to need," he noted.

Banerjee identifies 3D printing as one of the top 10 technology trends the company is following closely. Researchers at the company's R&D center in Grenoble, France, are looking at using additive manufacturing for making spare parts for internal company use.

"Right now, it has great potential for parts that are in demand, to reduce inventory and supply issues," he said. "If we're making products in China that use a part that is made in France, we can upload a 3D file and print it there."

Besides coming up to speed on all that Schneider Electric is doing in R&D, and formulating the plan for the company's next phase, Banerjee has blocked out some time to be a keynote speaker at the IoT World Forum, Dec. 6-8, with a talk entitled, "Powering a New Era of Operational Intelligence with the Internet of Things." According to the conference website, attendees can expect to hear about the following:

"The Internet of Things is the ultimate change agent challenging us to find new ways to work, produce, do business, and live. Our customers are demanding systems that allow their teams and processes to connect and interoperate in ways like never before. When operational, financial, energy, and sustainability teams collaborate, enterprises and communities are finding game-changing drivers for safety, reliability, efficiency, and sustainability. But as IT and OT companies come together to implement these systems, major hurdles in the ways we compute, control, collaborate, and architect systems must be addressed... lessons learned from years of experience on the vanguard of boundary-crossing interoperability through Schneider Electric's EcoStruxure approach, the innovations we have developed explicitly to support IoT implementations, and the direct results seen from real-world case studies where these barriers have been overcome to deliver new levels of efficiency."

RP Siegel, PE, has a master's degree in mechanical engineering and worked for 20 years in R&D at Xerox Corp. An inventor with 50 patents, and now a full-time writer, RP finds his primary interest at the intersection of technology and society. His work has appeared in multiple consumer and industry outlets, and he also co-authored the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.

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