By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service
Many would argue that virtual reality (VR) is one of those technologies that has generated more discussion than actual adoption over the past decade, at least outside of gaming applications. However, its close cousins, augment reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), have a steadily increased presence in field service and other industrial spaces. And we may be reaching a tipping point.
IDC, as part of its FutureScape: Worldwide Future of Operations 2023 Predictions, noted that: “By 2027, the use of extended reality technology, including AR/VR/MR tools, will increase by 40%, creating a new breed of digital worker and reducing operator/field worker errors by 30%.”
I have also seen growth estimates indicating a CAGR of as much as 30.6% for extended reality (XR) and up to 43.8% globally for AR. The potential expansion of AR will not only change the way frontline field service technicians work but I believe will eventually create new roles and new types of service experiences that will fundamentally evolve service delivery in a variety of ways.
When we talk about AR in field service, traditionally what that has looked like is a technician in the field, armed with a tablet or maybe a VR headset, using the technology to overlay schematics or other data over an image of an actual piece of equipment. In some cases, remote technicians are aided by more senior technicians or other SMEs off-site, using the technology to provide a better view of the problem and allow for the benefits of “hands on” guidance without the need for that senior worker to travel on site. Other companies have seen success in using AR and MR for training purposes, speeding the time to value of new workers. And yet others have begun using the technology directly with customers to provide remote service and speed time to resolution.
These examples of the use of AR/MR and sometimes VR offer some valuable potential benefits:
- You can accelerate and improve training for new hires
- You can better leverage the knowledge of senior technicians by allowing them to assist multiple less-experienced technicians from a central location
- You can enable remote service/support applications by allowing technicians to help customers troubleshoot or diagnose problems
- Technicians in the field will have access to better diagnostic and repair information (without the hassle of paper manuals), which can make them more effective and productive
- Remote service can improve response times and reduce the cost of truck rolls
- And more
We’ve Only Just Begun
What is perhaps most compelling here is that these benefits target some of the most acute problems facing the service industry – the difficulty in hiring and training new technicians, the looming retirement of large numbers of older technicians, rising costs, and the increased complexity of the equipment being serviced.
Focusing on the staffing and efficiency benefits misses part of the story, though, and does not address some of the potential for virtual technology to change service in other ways.
That's because there are other trends outside of service that are also pushing adoption of VR/AR/XR across different industries. As more firms adopt digital twin technology on the design and manufacturing side, for example, it will be easier to provide access to these virtual twins of equipment to service organizations. Potentially, that could provide a shared view of assets for both PLM and SLM solutions leveraging everything from CAD files to real-time equipment performance data.
Why is that important? There are already manufacturers leveraging that type of VR technology for everything from individual pieces of equipment to entire factories. At some point in the future, technicians could evaluate a virtual twin of a specific machine located hundreds or thousands of miles away, and then diagnose, recalibrate and potentially even (in some cases) repair the machine in an entirely virtual setting.
More immediate scenarios would enable customers and technicians to use AR as a link to enable better remote diagnostics and service as part of a remote-first strategy that can improve response times, fix rates, and technician efficiency.
While that will result in less on-site service and technical expertise, there will need to be a restructuring within service organizations to ensure that customers are getting effective remote service, that they can escalate to an on-site visit when necessary, and that the service organization can establish good customer relationships as they transition from a traditional break/fix to a more trusted advisor role.
In an environment where most companies are having trouble hiring enough technicians, wasting a truck roll when the problem could have been solved remotely by a technician or even by the customer themselves is no longer an acceptable cost of doing business. The real value of AR/VR in service is not the ability to peer into a machine from afar (although that is important), but in how the technology can help service organizations provide the right type of service as quickly as possible.
When I spoke with Tony Black, President of Service at Husky Injection Molding Systems, last summer, he talked about the role of AR and artificial intelligence in helping create better informed technicians that can work in smarter ways. It has also allowed the company to create new roles and opportunities for technicians within the company to enable remote service without losing the human touch needed to provide a good customer experience. Technicians play a critical role, even if they aren't going to the customer site. “The type of techs and the number of super techs you need, the mix is going to change, but they will always be needed,” Tony said. “And again, what we’re doing is we’re creating more informed technicians.”
I heard much the same when I spoke to Munters about how their remote services strategy changed before and after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – their use of the technology was initially for business continuity, but has evolved into a more strategic play in allowing the company to focus on outcomes-based service. “When you want to reduce downtime, you cannot permit yourself to send a technician who goes on site, has to travel for two hours, does a diagnosis, comes back, orders a part, goes for a second time to fix it. You don’t have that luxury anymore. Remote Assistance can help reduce downtime, because that technician that did one visit during the day, using remote technology can maybe serve 20 customers that day,” says Roel Rentmeesters,
VP of Digital Transformation at Munters.
Husky and Munters are just two examples that illustrate how remote service is increasingly an important part of staying competitive and profitable – and how AR/MR/VR technologies are going to be increasingly important enablers as organizations make that transition.