KONE’s mission is to improve the flow of urban life. The Finnish-headquartered elevator and escalator engineering and maintenance company is responsible for 1.1 million elevators worldwide. As well as office and apartments, it runs people moving machinery at airports, stadiums and exhibition venues. At Heathrow airport in London alone, it is responsible for moving 191,000 people daily, using 1,035 escalators, elevators and autowalks.

This is a huge responsibility, as breakdowns or faulty equipment could cause delays affecting thousands of people. In recent years, KONE has intensively ramped up efforts to capture as much data as possible from this machinery and put it into the cloud.

From here their analysts, backed with sophisticated AI and machine learning courtesy of IBM’s Watson platform, can ensure that everything is operating efficiently, and technicians can diagnose and react to problems as soon they are predicted to occur, rather than having to wait and act after something goes wrong.

CEO Henrick Ehrnrooth tells me “We are connecting elevators and escalators to the cloud – over the next few years we are planning to collect more than a million of them. Of course with Internet of Things and cloud, that means we’re collecting a lot of data, and this enables us to provide significant value for our customers.

“The key technology – sensoring – it’s out there. A lot of people are doing it. We’re taking it further by focusing on how we can improve the business of our customers. When you’re managing a building it’s important to have a full understanding of what’s going on, all the time – what is happening? How is the equipment performing? How are people moving in the building?”

Real-time machine data

KONE’s system – which can interface directly with the company’s own escalators and elevators to access machine data directly, or use sensors to collect data from machinery installed by other manufacturers – gives real-time readouts on everything from start and stop times, to acceleration, temperature, noise levels and vibrations running through cables.

You can actually see (or rather hear) it in action at http://machineconversations.kone.com/

The site takes machine data as elevators communicate through the cloud and translates it into human speech – it’s an interesting glimpse into what the idea that machines are now capable of talking to each other really means!

This week, KONE announced that it will package this data and provide it to customers – lift and elevator operators – with the name 24/7 Connected Services.

A limited amount of edge computing is also carried out – with some decisions about what data is or isn’t useful made at the point where it is collected from the machinery itself. This cuts down on overall data volume by eliminating useless “noise” at the source.

With this basic functionality – real-time reporting and predictive maintenance – in place, KONE has just completed the first step of the journey that it is hoping to take with machine learning and predictive analytics.

“Now that we have the Watson IoT platform in place, this is just the start”, Ehrnrooth tell me. “Now we have the elevators connected to the cloud, and we are connected to our customers, we can very easily add different services and parts to the package.”

Looking forward

The plan is that the Watson system will soon be able to act as a real-time adviser to technicians, equipped with hand-held terminals and able to get instant insights to any problems they come up against during their day-to-day routines.

“They will be told ‘there is X per cent likeliness that this is the problem, and this is how you should fix it’, and that assistance will come from what the system has learned while it’s been running, and the technical documentation that’s been fed into it.”

Other ideas include deploying Watson into call centers, where it will analyze customer telephone conversations, offering customer service staff real-time help in the same way it does for technicians.

Looking perhaps a little further into the future, the idea of “personalizing” elevator rides is on KONE’s agenda. Just as the wealth of newly available and capturable data on individuals is enabling personalized shopping and healthcare, so could it add value during the time we spend going up and down between floors.

By giving it permission to know who we are, an elevator in an apartment block could be programmed to take us directly to our floor, saving us the hassle of putting down our groceries and pressing a button. It could cut down on waiting time by proactively knowing what floor it would be needed at. And mood lighting (based on our latest social media postings?) or displays of relevant information (weather, local transport disruptions) initiated when appropriate.

For those worried about the threat that robots and AI pose to human jobs, be reassured that KONE is not intending to replace humans completely, just yet. “A service business is a people interaction business, and that will not change,” Ehrnrooth says.

“Elevators and escalators still need to be installed and maintained by humans. If you want to design services that fit the exact needs of your customers, then you need human interaction. We feel very strongly about that.”

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