The pros and cons of augmented reality in field services

Indresh Satyanarayana Profile picture for user Indresh Satyanarayana April 9, 2017
Augmented reality has huge potential to change how field service is delivered. ServiceMax chief architect Indresh Satyanarayana weighs the pros and cons

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If there’s one type of technology that is gaining more and more buzz every day, it’s augmented reality. From trying on clothes to decorating virtual homes to sharing experiences with others, AR has already proven compelling for companies across a variety of industries. Even with adjacent technology like Google Glass, factories and manufacturing plants are putting instructional hardware to good use. And the benefits abound — this side-by-side video shows exactly how much more efficient a factory worker using AR technology is compared to one who doesn’t.

But an area of augmented reality that hasn’t garnered as much attention is in how it impacts a burgeoning space in the industrial sector — field service. In this industry comprised of throngs of technicians charged with maintaining and repairing sophisticated industrial equipment in the field, managers and executives are already imagining what an AR-enabled future could be like — and how the effect could trickle down to businesses in every corner of the world. Companies such as Schneider Electric have already begun experimenting with what it can do for its service workforce.

Adopting AR at this stage is full of pros and cons and fans should proceed with some caution. Embracing the new technology would present several upfront challenges, including a steep adoption curve and troublesome IT input. But the benefits also speak for themselves.

A more dynamic workforce

A typical day in traditional field service looks something like this. A customer calls to complain about anything from a broken air conditioner to a malfunctioning wind turbine. Dispatch sends out a local technician with some background knowledge of the machine’s history, its previous outages, and what the issue might be. Days or weeks later – depending on whether that technician has the right tools and skills to fix it – the machine’s back up and running.

And while technology continues to disrupt the service sector to make that process work a whole lot quicker, a significant percentage of these field service workers, who have occupied the industry for decades, will soon begin to retire. Frankly, the field doesn’t currently attract a particularly large crowd of replacements. Recent college graduates trained in engineering or mechanics are more likely to wind up at a firm or a startup instead of out in the field all day cranking wrenches.

So augmented reality helps on two fronts here. One, it means retiring technicians can leverage augmented reality to train newer workers, regardless of location. This significantly expands the pool of talent available to fix machines, given the geographic hurdles disappear.

Bringing in fresh talent

On the second front, it’s a recruiting tool. Being able to simulate a down machine and educate workers on how to deal with it using technology can train them to be more dynamic, quicker. Educating a new class of workers in the technology they’re accustomed to can not only bring a comfort to the force but advertise the industry’s advancement and modernization — ideally helping bring more fresh talent through the doors.

One example I think illustrates this well is the barcode. Think of the average barcode found today on the back of everything from a banana to a very specific part of a wind turbine. That barcode, while just black and white patterns to the human eye, actually holds an entire package of rich information from dimensions to size to year and model. Right now, technicians scan a barcode and get textbook information on the product, but with AR, scanning a barcode immediately augments all of the relevant content on and around the physical machine. With automatically located help docks and compliance information, technicians can ensure that they’re using the right asset for the right job and that it happens fast. Information seamlessly appears, connecting to technological productivity and efficiency.

Lastly, outside of actually training field service workers via AR, the technology also allows for better customer service (and, ultimately, increased returns) through simulation. Imagine you’re a restaurant owner, and you want to install a Coke vending machine — but before you commit, you want to see what exactly that vending machine will look like, function like, and perform like. Enter augmented reality, which will allow you to simulate exactly how that machine will operate. It’s an important element that’s missing from the service industry right now, and presents a feasible option for better customer service and ideally more sales.

Massive adoption hurdles

While field service stands to gain great benefits from tapping into the potential of augmented reality, the implementation of the technology could prove challenging for a slow-to-adopt industry. iPads have been readily embraced by field service techs, but it took awhile. The question is more about when will field service be ready to harness the true power of the technology. It’s hard to say whether or not setting up the data and integration required for AR to add value will actually be worth the ROI.

As it stands, AR has yet to find a common ground between very expensive super technical tools, such as Microsoft’s Hololens (which is technically dubbed a “mixed reality” device by the company), and less-expensive-yet-hard-to-maneuver technology, such as AR applications on a smartphone. Cost alone is a extreme adoption hurdle, with the average hololens priced around $3,000. For most companies, that type of investment with ROI so far down the line isn’t feasible, creating a rift between the future of AR and field service.

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