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Even clever old Sherlock Holmes found himself at a dead end from time to time. In novel and film, his congenial partner Dr. Watson was usually by his side, providing a second viewpoint to overcome mental stumbling blocks.

Real life doesn't always provide that helping hand — especially for industrial maintenance techs. Highly specialized machinery demands extensive know-how, experience and a deft touch to resolve faults. The pressure can be enormous: each minute of downtime is ruinously expensive and, when production chains are tightly meshed, can also threaten downstream process steps. It can be a real challenge to keep a cool head like Sherlock Holmes and work logically through all potential causes.

A dialog with Watson

And that's where Watson comes into play — IBM's Watson supercomputer, that is. As part of a pilot project with John Deere in Mannheim, the computer will be supporting technicians from the agricultural machine maker as the troubleshoot machinery. Service personnel use their smartphones to contact the central computer and then describe the problem. Based on a photo, the system identifies the machine type, analyzes the error and assesses it. The maintenance expert then "discusses" the insights with the Watson system before Watson proposes concrete troubleshooting measures.

IBM presented a highly promising prototype for this solution at HANNOVER MESSE 2016. Now IBM is taking the next step: That program was redeveloped into the "Repair Experience with Watson" app. Companies are welcome to use it in their own production environments at no extra cost.

Artificial Intelligence for all

The app makes it possible to use artificial intelligence for a company's machine park without any additional programming or installation. The entire app logic, including all required Watson functions, is drawn from the IBM Cloud. A graphic user interface allows Watson to learn about the broken machine: users upload handbooks, photos and graphics to help with image recognition, as well as any other relevant data, into the IBM Cloud. This forms the basis for Watson's know-how.

IBM includes the source code for the app so that companies can adapt it to their own specific needs and tailor how artificial intelligence helps their service technicians. The goal is to allow them to communicate freely with Watson to take advantage of the knowledge in the maintenance handbooks and training sessions. Sherlock Holmes would have loved it.

The digital factory is becoming a reality: In the future, everything will be networked: suppliers, producers and customers. The question is thus not whether industry will take up digital possibilities, but rather how efficiently it will tap into them. For now it relies on a strong network between machine builders, electrical engineers and IT. The leading fair for the Digital Factory at the HANNOVER MESSE offers a broad spectrum of forums, congresses and special events related to integrated products and IT solutions.

At the Industrial Automation fair, itself an industry leader as well, visitors can find a wide range of information about digital production. The Forum Industrial Automation is famous around the world: its participants come from many nations to discuss solutions from the production and process automation fields as well as innovations in robotics and image processing, industrial IT, energy-efficient drive engineering and pumps and pump system solutions.