For manufacturers, the COVID-19 pandemic poses complex problems in terms of staffing, health & safety, supply chain maintenance, transportation, and demand. And for makers of specialist products that other organizations rely on to keep their own operations running, the challenge can be acute.
But the crisis has also been an opportunity of sorts, in that it has forced some companies to accelerate strategic changes that were already being considered and to road test new technologies. This has been particularly true for any manufacturers that have been adopting a more service-led approach, rather than simply shifting boxes.
Munters is a maker of sustainable, energy-efficient air treatment and cooling systems for industrial and agricultural applications, with 3,100 employees based at facilities in 30 countries. An archetypal big box shifter, perhaps, but like some other specialist providers — Rolls Royce in aerospace, for example — Munters has been moving towards 'servitization'. In that world, equipment reliability and uptime is as critical to success as the unit sales that had previously sustained the business.
But servitization becomes a real challenge when engineers and service teams are unable to travel to clients — customers that are still relying on the products working, especially in such critical sectors as pharmaceuticals, electronics, or farming, where environmental conditions need to be strictly monitored and controlled.
Adding remote support to site visits
Until recently, Munters had been reliant on site visits to clients, not just to assess their needs and install new equipment, but also to service, repair, and upgrade systems that were already in place. The company's shift towards a more service-led business model persuaded it to explore new ways to minimize the need for expensive site visits, while still supporting their engineering teams and customers to the high standards they had come to expect.
Needless to say, those strategic aims have been dramatically underlined by the coronavirus pandemic, which has created an urgent need for remote assistance capabilities to help engineers sidestep travel restrictions, maintain systems, and keep the customer happy.
Roel Rentmeesters is Director of Global Customer Service at Munters. He explains:
One of the things I had been looking into was remote support, both from an internal perspective and for the infrastructure of our service organization. I had been looking into how I could make it more efficient for our technicians to be out there in the field, and for our third-line organization that supports them with guidance and help. So I was thinking of a remote solution that could help them interact better with each other.
Mixed reality and remote assistance
While all types of organization have been exploring the use of virtual meeting platforms in the lockdown, these don't typically offer the depth and interactivity that specialist engineers or non-expert clients need in order to fix or upgrade ailing machinery. The solution needed to be something that combined remote/teleworking capabilities with mixed or merged reality, so that Munters could bridge the distance between human engineering expertise and its own complex hardware.
The company had been a customer of enterprise software provider IFS for some years, and discovered that it offered a potential solution, Remote Assistance, that plugged into its ERP and asset management systems. Via the platform, two users — whether remote engineer and client, or on-site engineer and third-line support service — can collaborate remotely in real-time in merged reality, via video, images, gestures, real objects, and more. Rentmeesters says:
It's a mixed or immersive reality that brings two video streams together into a single stream. You see what the customer, for example, is seeing, while the customer sees at the same time his screen. And you can intervene on that screen so you can show the right tool, where it should touch, what he should do next with it, and so on. We can use this for visual inspections, for diagnosis, and even to provide direct solutions.
Roll-out started within a week
With IFS keen to help and Rentmeesters at the helm as customer, Munters was able to implement the solution very quickly:
I first contacted IFS about Remote Assistance on 6th March, we had an agreement in place and were conducting the training of our first users by 12th March. The solution is very intuitive, so the training required is minimal and there's actually some instruction built into the app, too. In less than two hours, each of our users was fully trained and equipped to begin using the technology.
Munters is now expanding its use of Remote Assistance to more than 200 engineers worldwide, including its own field technicians and the third-line support organization of in-house experts. In many cases, the system is running on engineers' mobiles, but at the company's factory in the Czech Republic, it is being tested on Vuzix Smart Glasses for hands-free operation.
For a specialist manufacturer, the move has proved to be ideal at a complex, troubling, and challenging time, not just because of the coronavirus, but also because of the shifting demands of the market in which Munters operates:
We were primarily a product-selling company, with 18 factories around the world, and the devices themselves are quite big. But our market is demanding — our customers demand more service around the box, not just the box. We want to be able to offer more than a packaged product. What if something happens to your device? Preferably you should be able to intervene so that there's no downtime.
Connected to ERP and analytics
The fact that the application can be browser-based and also links to enterprise systems, such as ERP, has been a bonus, he explains:
In the ERP system, there was already a separate solution for field service management, so from that ticket we are now able to initiate the video system and actions will be recorded against that ticket — for instance the time, who was called, how long they were on the phone, along with files or pictures that were sent back and forth. It allows us to track all of those activities inside the ticket management system.
To what extent is the company now able to use the insights gained from the system to feed back into product and service development? A great deal, according to Rentmeesters:
If we are constructing a sellable product, we can use this as a true test of the time we spend with the customer. Second, we can use it internally for our knowledge base, we can see what kind of problems we can diagnose or provide solutions for.
And third, it helps me internally as well my own technicians, because technicians will support each other using the tool. For instance, I can see which technicians have been working on the same kinds of problems, the same ticket, and how much time is spent. It will even allow me to get into a lot more of the training I can give.
As for helping to develop the products themselves, absolutely. It's already standard in our process. It will help us do visual inspections even before going on site, it may help with warranty issues, structural problems, and so on.
Helping customers do their own fixes
Originally, the vision was for engineers to use the tool on site to interact in real time with the third-line support organization, but COVID-19 has changed the environment almost overnight, says Rentmeesters.
If you look at the current situation, we have countries where my engineers can't go or travel within. They are at home, so they can't go to the customer, or perhaps the customers can't allow them to come. So we are currently using this solution with our customers. If a customer has an issue they might be able to fix himself, we will try to resolve it with him using this technology.
There was a personal impetus behind adopting the system too, he explains.
We have a new President who lives in Italy, and Italy has been hit very badly and was one of the first in Europe, so already in January we saw the potential for this kind of system. We have a huge operation in China as well.
The digital economy has transformed many traditional businesses, not just in obvious ways by reinventing them for the mobile, cloud-backed, on-demand world, but also by turning even unit-based businesses into as-a-service operations. With companies like Rolls Royce now pulling in their revenues not from selling jet engines, but from how long customers' planes are in the air, it's clear that manufacturing is no longer just about shifting boxes.
However, it has taken the coronavirus to really bring home to companies the need to minimize travel, work remotely, use resources more sustainably, and help their customers in much smarter ways. Let's hope the lessons of the crisis remain long after it has ended.