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Industry of Things World Interview: Athanasios Kontopoulos, Air Liquide

Athanasios Kontopoulos

Athanasios Kontopoulos
Computational & Data Science Scientific Director, R&D, Air Liquide

Athanasios currently holds the position of “Computational & Data Science R&D Scientific Director”. He is a graduate of National Technical University of Athens and holds a PhD from University of Liège. He joined Air Liquide in 1995. Within the Group, he found several ways to express his passion for simulation and applied math in R&D and Operations. In particular, he is a pioneer in the development of multi-variable predictive control systems and innovative real-time optimization systems. He presented the first roadmap of big data for Air Liquide and set up the first teams of data scientists, in 3 countries, within R&D’s “Computational & Data Science Global Lab”. He introduced artificial intelligence, through proofs of concept and alliances with innovative companies in the field. He recently launched the “data and decision sciences lab” (d2-lab) initiative in Air Liquide, a network of experts and practitioners, to reach scientific excellence in these areas.

We sat down with Athanasios Kontopoulos after he delivered his plenary session lecture at the Industry of Things World congress which took place between the 23-25 th of September.

we.CONECT: Now to start with, it seems that we are currently in the middle of what you could almost describe as an IoT bubble; countless companies are finding ways to squeeze ‘IoT’ and ‘Smart Connectivity’ into their descriptions to gain investment and clients and the internet is awash with companies offering ‘smart services’ for almost any problem, but the principals behind IoT have been around for quite a while, so what has changed in the past 5 years and what’s all the fuss about?

Athanasios Kontopoulos: As fas as IoT and connectivity are concerned: Machine Learning and cloud computing has made some real progress in the last years. There’s more awareness also around how the data coming from IoT can be activated through analytics and improving decision making.

– Increase in awareness of the potential of analytics with IoT
– cloud computing: many companies like Air Liquide now adopt a ‘cloud first’ strategy with a strong data policy and governance. Previously, all this data was in silos & servers, which meant, even with IoT, it was hard to “activate” the dat. Now, we can.
– Machine Learning algorithms have made a lot of progress, especially with trends like edge computing

So many conditions have now come together to scale up IoT and ensure that our data scientists have access to this data.

we.CONECT: Do you think we are actually getting ahead of ourselves here, because around many of these technologies, most companies and organisations haven’t sorted out basic principles like true ‘agnostic’ interoperability and setting up IoT architectures.

Athanasios Kontopoulos: Real interoperability is needed to have a step change. There are initiatives such as the Open Process Automation Forum , to name just one. Now, Industry is not just about grassroot assets to be built but a lot of legacy. And, there, things are more complicated when we talk connectivity. Costs can go high and the business cases need to be clear. Think what you really need to be connected. Value is the key.

we.CONECT: This is interesting, because when the internet came into the public sphere in the 90s, there were all sorts of bold predictions about the future of business, society and communication, many of these never came into reality, so what has changed now and is this revolution going to be different?

Athanasios Kontopoulos: Awareness increases. As well as penetration of digital in everyday life. Some businesses, such as telecoms and banking, have changed in a fast pace. Industry is a bit longer to come, as we mentioned earlier, because of legacy. But, for instance, customer-centric attitude becomes a must. And the digital is key in this direction.

we.CONECT: I now want to turn our discussions to an area where Air Liquide really is towards the front of the pack in terms of strategy, and that is the application of AI to manufacturing. In terms of basic principles, what can well implemented AI offer industrial companies?

Athanasios Kontopoulos: A lot. Our strategy is based on three axes. Assets: here we find “traditional” topics such as logistics, predictive maintenance, robotics. Then “Customers”. Customer-centricity and customer personalization can really be enabled by AI, cross-sell is just an example to mention. And, finally, “Ecosystems”. E.g. we can using text mining to fastly process information related to internal and external ecosystem.

we.CONECT: It’s interesting, there is a lot of interest in these topics at the moment and it seems to me that now is the time that these discussions need to be had. In fact, some people say that we have reached a point in the last 5 years that is akin to the ‘primordial soup’ for AI. If this is the case what are the key ingredients that have allowed smart systems, connectivity and deep analytics to thrive?

Athanasios Kontopoulos: You need to get your strategy right. Set the business objectives. Engage people. Have first successes and communicate.

we.CONECT: Standing on the edge of this great manufacturing AI revolution that we are currently experiencing, what for you is the most exciting development currently underway in this field?

Athanasios Kontopoulos: Difficult to pick just one from all! Customer-centricity enabled by AI is something I strongly support.

we.CONECT: I am now going to challenge you with a somewhat provocative statement… there are pundits out there that contest that IoT and AI are just another bubble, and that the current hype-cycle will pass. In my role engaging with speakers from across industries, I am now starting to notice that some companies are becoming disenfranchised with their IoT investments… there is a feeling that they didn’t live up to their promise and offer expected ROIs. What is your advice for a company that has lost its way and is looking for direction in implementing IoT technology but ensuring they will get the expected payback?

Athanasios Kontopoulos: I’d say make sure to get the “why” right first. What is the business case and the benefit you hope to take out of it. Then make sure you engage the stakeholders. That they start the quest being convinced. AI is fine but PEOPLE are in the center.

we.CONECT: Now to focus more on companies that haven’t yet started the journey, what advice would you have for a manufacturing company looking at injecting some connectivity and machine intelligence into their operations for the first time?

Athanasios Kontopoulos: Once again: make sure to get the business case correctly. 1) Plan it 2) make it happen and 3) communicate it. The seed will grow.

we.CONECT: What’s the most common mistake you see when companies try to implement IoT?

Athanasios Kontopoulos: I think when they want to “boil the ocean”, make it exceptionally big and completely general. You need to balance ambition with pragmatic and focused approach.

we.CONECT: If you could give advice to manufacturing companies on how to approach the following three aspects of their operations, what would that be?
1. Business models and market strategy
2. Human vs machine roles and skills
3. Social corporate responsibility in era where many jobs are being eaten by software/technology

Athanasios Kontopoulos:

1. Business models need to evolve because there’s significant potential to integrate digital and data-driven services in offerings to customers.
2. Human capital is a core asset of any organization. It is important to upskill our employees constantly to keep pace with Digitalization. For instance, we have a thriving community of 200+ citizen data scientists across Air Liquide, who participate in data competitions, meetings etc.
3. Surely, AI can automate many tasks. In Industry, reality is often the one of “augmented AI” where the combination of human knowledge and AI can give great results.

we.CONECT: Is there anything else you would like to add about your involvement and message for the upcoming Industry of Things World congress?

Athanasios Kontopoulos: I’ve been following the event since the first year and never missed one. It gives great insights and an excellent view to the ecosystem!