aiTech‌ ‌Trend‌ ‌Interview‌ ‌with‌ Milan Karunaratne,‌ ‌Sr Director, AI & Advanced Technologies at Wabtec Corporation - AITechTrend
Milan-Karunaratne

aiTech‌ ‌Trend‌ ‌Interview‌ ‌with‌ Milan Karunaratne,‌ ‌Sr Director, AI & Advanced Technologies at Wabtec Corporation

Can you tell us about your role as the Sr Director, AI & Advanced Digital Technologies at Wabtec Corporation? What are your main responsibilities?

The Digital Advanced Technologies team is a part of the larger Advanced Technology Group at Wabtec. Think of us as the applied R&D arm of the company. Our main responsibility is to de-risk new technology introduction and deliver breakthrough solutions that can scale for our business. My team comprises several divisions focused on applying AI and advanced technologies at Wabtec. Our Artificial Intelligence group is focused on building new software and hardware products that bring scalable machine learning based solutions for our customers. More on the production engineering front, we have a cloud technologies group that builds curated cloud services for applications teams to simplify and standardize software practices across Wabtec; an IDP (internal developer platform) for our software development teams. Finally, we have a group focused on robotics and automation and how such operations can bring a new wave of capabilities to the rail industry.

What are some of the biggest challenges that your team faces when it comes to driving disruptive innovation and new digital product development in a large enterprise like Wabtec? How do you go about addressing those challenges? 

There are many challenges. These challenges also make the work exciting. In our industry, when introducing a new product into well-established operations, you need to “design the plane while landing the plane”. I know it’s a bit odd that I use an airplane analogy to describe what it’s like to drive innovation in the rail industry – but it works. The operation of railroads across the globe are vital from both a freight and passenger perspective. Any disruption to operations can cause ripple effectives on the supply chain or adversely impact a city’s ability to move its population around. When introducing a new product into well-established operations, especially in a minimum viable product fashion, we must be laser focused on the key hypotheses we’re looking to validate and what risks we are trying to evaluate. This targeted focus helps drive technology adoption. Also, just like any founder of a startup, you need to effectively communicate your innovation, business case, and potential impact to stakeholders.

How do you foster a culture of applied innovation within your team and throughout your organization, and what role do strategic product road maps and effective minimum viable products play in enabling new solutions to scale successfully? 

I strive to create an environment that gives my team the comfort to take swings on ideas.  I ask everyone on the team to ask themselves 3 questions to help foster this: 
“Are you excited about what you’re working on?” – if the team is bored, you are not getting the best out of them.  

Are you feeling a bit uncomfortable in the work you are doing?

if you’re not even a bit uncomfortable in your work, that means you’re not growing. You need to be on your toes and always learning something new. This brings intrinsic motivation and creativity to your work without you even realizing it.

Do you understand / can you see the business impact your work has to the organization?

There is no better feeling than looking at one of your projects and seeing the value you just created. You want to be able to point to your project and say, “I was a part of that, or I helped build that!”.  

Effective MVP’s and strategic roadmaps are vital to de-risking new products, regardless of the type of innovation. A good MVP helps de-risk both technical and commercial risks for a product. The goal is to come down that risk curve in a speedy and cost-efficient manner. This way if you need to pivot or park your idea, you have objective data to do so. Innovation is about iteration.   

Computer Vision (CV) and Digital Twin technologies have been adding a lot of value in the industrial space and particularly in rail. Advancements in edge AI and machine learning based CV tech has enabled us to perform more intelligent inspections on critical infrastructure, vehicle, rolling stock, etc. This helps get back to improving safety and reliability of operations. Digital Twins have helped in the predictive maintenance space. The ability to apply advanced concepts like physics-based neural nets into diagnosing or predicting health on an industrial asset has added a ton of value in system up time, cost profiles and performance capabilities.  

What breakthroughs in AI and machine learning are you most looking forward to from a technology perspective, and how do you think they will impact Wabtec’s business and products?

Generative AI and specifically LLMs are going to help bring in a wave of additional value. It’s going to help unlock unstructured data sets that we have in troves to help add a new “lever” to models looking to optimize asset performance or drive larger scale optimization in network operations, etc. Also progress around vehicle intelligence for high automation, autonomous vehicles and advanced robotics can allow us to explore new solutions for our industry. When it comes to automated operations, rail has a variety of advantages compared to other modes of transportation, but we have our complexities to overcome. I believe these technologies will help make our industry more competitive with truck and help promote the use of rail, which is a cheaper, safer, and more efficient mode of transportation.   

The best way to stay up to date is by building cutting edge products and solving tough problems. Do this and you’ll be forced to seek the latest greatest tech. In most of our projects we end up creating new technology and intellectual property of our own. Networking and staying connected with various experts and strategic partners in the field is also very helpful. 

How do you work with other teams at Wabtec to ensure that your AI products and digital solutions are aligned with the overall business strategy and goals?

You know, this is a lot harder that one might think. We’re a large enterprise and have steadily grown organically as well as through numerous acquisitions. I look at alignment in two ways. The first is through common platforms and services and the second is through engagement and communication. Standardized platforms and services help drive alignment in core technology. This helps design out unnecessary cost, risks, and duplicative efforts. Change management, collaboration and patience are all extremely important to be effective across the organization. This one is tough, but you need to keep pushing communication and being creative on how to communicate these strategic directions. 

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in AI and machine learning, particularly in the industrial sector?

Focus on building product that solves a big problem. The AI/ML models will come along for the ride. Understanding your product or problem well is vital. Combine that diligence in product development with a solid understanding in AI services and statistical methods you’ll be well on your way. Being well versed in application development, UX and foundational MLops are also good skills to have. 

Can you give us a sneak peek into some of the upcoming product upgrades that Wabtec customers can look forward to?

Absolutely. The Advanced Technology group at Wabtec has an exciting lineup of new product and technology innovation in the works. For our transit customers, we’re launching deep learning-based computer vision solutions that will enhance safety and efficiency in passenger bus and rail operations. Additionally, we’re developing advanced visual inspection technologies specifically designed for our freight rail customers to help improve rail safety and reliability. We’re also working on a range of human centered robotic and automation solutions. One example is teleoperation technology, which enables beyond line of site vehicle operation and low latency video streaming. We’re also developing various fixed and mobile railcar and track inspection solutions that can bring both robotic and visual inspection attention to critical systems for a railroad. So, there is a lot to look forward too. 


Bio for Milan Karunaratne, Sr Director, AI & Advanced Technologies of Wabtec Corporation

Milan has 15 years of experience in the freight transportation & logistics industry working for General Electric and Wabtec Corporation. A graduate of GE’s Edison Leadership Development Program, Milan has held various engineering roles with global exposure spanning engine technology development, control system diagnostics and systems innovation. He has extensive experience building and leading teams in advanced analytics, machine learning and automation technologies for large scale assets, advancing the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).  

Currently, Milan serves as the Sr Director of Digital Advanced Technologies under the office of the CTO at Wabtec. Bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to a large corporation, his dedicated team of AI data scientists, cloud engineers and architects as well as product strategists is focused around driving disruptive innovation and new digital product development across Wabtec’s $9B portfolio of businesses. Milan has over 20 patents granted throughout his tenure working in the industry and has grown that culture of applied innovation within his teams. In 2022, RailwayAge magazine named Milan among the “Top 25 under 40”, highlighting innovative contributions to the industry. 

He holds a B.E. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Stony Brook University in New York and an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he continues to serve as an mentor to Anderson’s Venture Accelerator and a Board Member to the Easton Technology Management Center. 


Bio for, Wabtec Corporation

Wabtec Corporation (NYSE: WAB) is focused on creating transportation solutions that move and improve the world. The company is a leading global provider of equipment, systems, digital solutions and value-added services for the freight and transit rail industries, as well as the mining, marine and industrial markets. Wabtec has been a leader in the rail industry for over 150 years and has a vision to achieve a zero-emission rail system in the U.S. and worldwide. Visit Wabtec’s website at: www.wabteccorp.com

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Sr Director, AI & Advanced Technologies