Full Steam Ahead: CIO Kopal Raj of WABTEC India on staying ‘on-track’ with AI, IoT and sustainability goals

Aug 08, 20238 mins
Artificial IntelligenceDigital TransformationInternet of Things

"We’re making efforts in green technology, hydrogen fuel cells, bringing down diesel consumption and manufacturing electronic locomotives to bring down carbon footprint," says Kopal Raj, CIO of WABTEC India, on their sustainability goals.

Image of Kopal Raj, CIO of WABTEC
Credit: Foundry

With a mission to revolutionize the future of global mobility, WABTEC delivers transformative transportation systems that quite literally propel the world forward. Initiated in 1869, with an expansive legacy built on the shoulders of giants such as Westinghouse (which gives it the name Westinghouse Airbrakes technology), Edison and Faiveley, WABTEC has been pioneering force in modern transportation solutions.

Transitioning from mechanical challenges, the global freight organization has embraced more intricate trials, those of remote management, digitization, and preserving technical expertise and quality in the face of emerging obstacles.

In the new technological era, perhaps no role has seen a more profound upheaval than that of the CIO. Dispensing her responsibilities with ease, Kopal Raj, a tech leader with 26 years of experience brings her technical acumen and plethora of skills to navigate this role and lead WABTEC India into the future.

In this conversation with Foundry, Kopal dives deep into her career progression, the challenges of marrying manufacturing with digitization and WABTEC’s commitment to sustainability.

Kopal, tell us about your journey. How did you start at WABTEC, and what would you consider your greatest career achievement?

I’ve always been a techie at heart and always wanted to pursue computer programming. I started out as an application developer. Since I was adept at project management, I was asked to head the IT department for one of the small subsidiaries of TATA organization.

Initially, I was naïve about the infrastructure space, but was fortunate to have a great mentor. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to grow across multiple domains and transition every few years. Now I have consciously tapped into the R&D space, product development and the DevOps segment.

Once I saw the alignment to being CIO, I ramped up on emerging technologies, novel product development and solutioning systems. I have been very fortunate to always find my feet with the right role for almost 26 years.

What are some unique data and cybersecurity challenges when helming such a vast locomotion technology company?

History is witness to railways ushering in the era of digitization in any country. For instance, the IRCTC online booking portal came into India well before tech giants like Amazon and was responsible for many of the mainframes that started the planning and scheduling of trains.

WABTEC products and locomotives have numerous embedded digital pieces – both hardware and software, which allow us to track performance, and assess their reliability and warranty for the customers. Designed to be under high stress and duress, we monitor them for temperature, pressure, and other parameters. Our products are sometimes tested for a year before being launched in the field.

Much of the digitization in the manufacturing segment is related to the execution systems. All our standard processes like shop floor management are digitized, and we collect data to perform analytics for preventive maintenance.

Digitization is also a crucial part of design of the transit segment, or the freight bogies that we design in India. Software has been employed to help with the R&D solutioning and conduct lab management, to decipher details like how much horsepower an engine needs or its cooling requirements.

Our command centres monitor a large number of freight locomotives across the globe, allowing us to visualize the locomotive’s location, and its servicing alerts. Analytics is also used to ascertain margins of our services, sales, and for the customers to decide what they want to buy next.

How is WABTEC India leveraging emerging technologies like AI and IoT to enhance its manufacturing processes, as well as improve operational efficiency?

Products are endowed with digital connect to make them more usable, and less prone to error. We are an industry 4.0 organization and pick up considerable data from our SCADA level systems.

This data coming in through the machine sensors, assembly lines and nifty components ensures that the entire team doesn’t need to be on the shop floor to know what is going on. It allows us to perform timely remote intervention on the alerts and signals received, thus supporting the on-site engineer.

IoT software in the machines connected to the sensors gives information on the strength or durability of the brakes while the locomotive is in use. There is an initiative to develop autonomous locomotives as well, which we are very confident about executing skilfully on fixed tracks.

Technologically, we’re looking at drone-based monitoring of railways in the future. This would help track maintenance, yard planning and oversee the whole track area during flooding and other natural calamities.

We are bringing these new technologies to India too, because railways are such an integral part of the country and its economy. The largest budget proposals were made by railway ministers this year, under the leadership of Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Minister for Railways and Information Technology.

What are some of the steps that you are taking to foster a culture of innovation and experimentation amongst the employees and customers, and encourage them to move towards digital transformation in in their work?

There can be parts of the industry which are still working on redundant legacy systems. For instance, some software developers still use Windows 2007 servers, which are completely end-of-life, and don’t have the necessary security patches.

Thus, we insist on customers to upgrade, because if someone sitting in a faraway location is using our software but haven’t upgraded underlying operating systems of the locomotive, then it poses a security risk.

Even with the all the essential security upgrades, the cyberthreat has been real in the last 2 years, and everybody has become more sensitive to it. Customers including private and government counterparts question us when it comes to the safety of their data.

Ultimately, we are as much a technology company as we are a locomotive company. The board is committed to this too, evident by the increased investment just around cybersecurity.

Our strong CTO structure and advanced technology teams are committed to problem solving. We are asking the right questions – about what railroads will look like in the future, and how the design of the locomotives needs to evolve.

We’re using generative AI use cases to train the drivers to fix problems. We allow a lot more freedom of experimentation for our engineers, which helps us raise our innovation standards while still protecting the production environment where the customer is running their locomotives.

What does sustainability look like for WABTEC India? What are the steps you’re taking as part of the leadership to ensure that the sustainability goals are met?

As a major transportation player in the industry, we have signed up to reduce the carbon footprint generated by locomotives and passenger trains.

We have also launched programs like ‘Winnovate’, under which teams aim to solve age-old problems, like new designs for battery cooling, or a particular recent innovation which is a novel system to capture and repurpose the tremendous heat energy that is released when you deconstruct a locomotive or a huge train and putting it back into the battery.

We have a chief sustainability officer, and we’re making efforts in green technology, hydrogen fuel cells, bringing down diesel consumption and now, manufacturing electronic locomotives as well. In India, the mandate dictates that by 2030, we need to shift to electronic locomotives.

When you reflect on your career, what’s a decision that you’ve taken during your tenure that you’re most proud of?

I believe that stretching myself to reset every time I embarked into a new domain is something that I am very proud of. Whether it was dabbling in network, chemicals, data projects, power plants, or locomotives, I’ve changed several teams and have ensured that I emerge successful in my domain so that people can vouch for my expertise.

Earlier, a business leader would simply delegate an IT intervention to somebody down in the department and cease to be involved after that. I have been triumphant in gaining the confidence and involvement of the senior leadership in IT endeavours. I have developed a keen sense of foresight for impending mistakes or failures. Now, I do not launch projects till I have buy-in from the leadership. My vast experience enables me for these nuances of the role.