It has become clear that ideas and innovations once relegated to the worlds of science fiction have entered our daily lives. Every time you see that yellow first-down marker during an NFL game or the MPH displayed on your car windshield, you’re seeing augmented reality (AR) in action.
At its essence, AR offers a different way to interact with the world around us by, you guessed it, augmenting our reality. Unlike virtual reality—which recreates or replaces our world with a 3D model—AR superimposes information (think sound, imagery, and GPS data) onto a real-life view. Examples of devices and apps that put AR to use include Google Glasses, Snapchat’s face swap feature, and Pokémon Go.
Why should those in field service management care? Because AR is starting to impact your daily work lives.
Common AR Applications in the Service World
"AR is most useful as a tool in industries where workers are either in the field, do not have immediate access to information, or jobs that require one or both hands and the operator's attention” according to Tuong Huy Nguyen, principal research analyst at Gartner.
The beauty of AR is that it makes it possible for people—even inexperienced personnel—to be put in real-life situations with clear guidance. For instance, mechanics could be guided to repair an engine on the tarmac, even if they had never before worked on that particular model. It’s easy to see how those in the utilities and telecommunications industries could put AR to use. In fact, The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is working with some of the world’s biggest utilities to determine ways to apply AR within the industry.
Training Field Personnel
One possibility is for training purposes. In fact, training was one of the first AR applications that researchers considered. Militaries around the world already use AR to train their troops. The technology makes it easier to understand and follow instructions, as compared to trying to follow written manuals or instructional videos, especially when it comes to tasks on 3D machines or devices.
Unlike virtual reality, AR doesn’t present trainees with a simulated environment. Instead, they are in an actual environment, where they would be expected to perform everyday tasks. And because augmentations can be changed on the fly, even personnel being trained remotely can be given in-the-moment feedback and updated guidance.
Assembling and Maintaining Capital Equipment
One area with huge potential for AR is the assembly and maintenance of complex equipment. In one test at Iowa State University, two groups of participants were asked to assemble a mock airplane wing. One group worked from instructions on a desktop computer, while the other worked from instructions on a mobile tablet converted to an overlay on the wing assembly. The group using the AR instructions committed 90% fewer errors during the assembly and built their wing 35% faster than the other group.
Caterpillar, the heavy equipment manufacturer, has an AR app for mobile devices, that guides services technicians through complex procedures. It also launched Cat® LIVESHARE, a tele-presence tool that makes it possible for a technician and expert in different locations to collaborate in a live, real-time setting using augmented reality. The users can collaborate using voice, 3D animation, annotation, screen sharing and white-boarding on any device. The idea is to make it feel as though an expert is by your side, helping you step by step, as you repair, troubleshoot a problem, or conduct maintenance on equipment.
Caterpillar is also exploring the use of AR animations to guide service technicians as they perform maintenance on Caterpillar’s XQ35 on-site portable generators, which are rented out to construction sites and live events.
AR could also come in handy for the telecommunications industry. Imagine a telecommunications company being able to see underground—much like Superman using x-ray vision—to locate its infrastructure. By using AR overlays on mobile devices, complemented by geographic information system (GIS) data, technicians could literally visualize underground assets, such as buried cables and cut wires, in their immediate vicinity.
Seeing Into AR’s Future
Many analysts feel AR is ready to explode within the business world. Digi-Capital projects that worldwide revenues from AR deployments will reach $90 billion by 2020. Global Market Insights Inc. pegs the market valuation at more than $165 billion by 2024. Index AR Solutions anticipates a $105 billion market for the U.S. Enterprise within 15 years, and believes early adopters will gain a competitive advantage in their industries. One reason for the optimism may be that companies realize the value of their investments with the very first use of an AR app
Hurdles on the Road to Full-Fledged Adoption
Though AR is proving its potential and seems to have a promising future, taking advantage of the technology isn’t always as simple as opening an app or putting on a pair of goggles. The processing that happens behind the scenes can require investments or integrations with a host of other systems and tools. Plus, to truly access and work with devices and machinery in the field using AR may hinge upon installing sensors in that equipment. Neither of these are small undertakings – or ones that can be accomplished overnight.
As is usually the case, it can be expensive and challenging to adopt emerging technology. In addition to the financial outlay, organizations will need to train their service personnel—often older workers who are less technically savvy—to work in new ways. They’ll need to take new devices into the field and follow guidance rather than calling on their intuition and experiences to date for problem solving. It might be difficult to get those in the field to work more collaboratively when they’re used to working in a lone fashion. Then there’s the issue of convincing them to put on a pair of goggles or wave their hands at a screen like Tom Cruise in the Minority Report.
We have yet to see if tomorrow will truly end up as portrayed in all those fantastical science fiction stories. But it’s clear that AR has a place in the here and now, and is more than likely going to change the future of field service.
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