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Digitizing the field service business with next generation technology

Hannover Messe 2017 has drawn to a close with cobots, SME digitization and Augmented Reality  being hailed as key themes for the next 12 months and beyond. ‘Integrated Industry – Creating Value’ was this year’s overarching theme with thousands of companies from around the world shining a spotlight on the benefits of Industry 4.0 and collaboration between humans and machines.

A key sector to benefit from this new world of connected manufacturing is Field Services, an industry that will be worth 3.61 Billion USD by 2021. It’s an area ripe with opportunity as manufacturers will always need to maintain and optimize their resources. Executed well, field service businesses can keep machine downtime to a minimum, driving cost savings and operational efficiencies.

Mind the (skills) gap

To keep up with market demand, product-orientated industries spend significant resource on retaining highly qualified field service technicians. As businesses continue to operate on a more global scale, sourcing experts has become a greater challenge. Regional skills gaps often result in companies only being able to offer basic field service support at a local level. In doing so, skilled professionals will often need to be flown in, to service more complex work, which can drastically increase machine downtime.

To combat this, a range of solutions from remote industrial field collaboration and augmented reality to highly advanced interactive holographic digital twins are shaking up the field service industry as we know it.

Harnessing a network of remote digital experts

Businesses are starting to realize that it’s not always economical to have an expert for each field service scenario on-site. Today, companies can employ field service generalists safe in the knowledge that they can be supported by digital technologies and solutions. For example, cloud-based industrial collaboration solutions can digitally connect field service technicians to remote specialists around the globe.

Following this approach, remote experts can access local camera systems and body cameras positioned on the field service technician for video-based collaboration sessions. The field technician can digitally share their local view with the remote expert, who in turn can guide their colleague with audio-based communication, shared files and video annotations.

By investing in remote experts, travel expenses will decrease, field service workers’ time can be more carefully managed and reaction times for operations can be reduced to a matter of minutes. Because of these benefits, this is an area that we’re truly excited about at Atos, and something that we’ve invested heavily in over recent years. Our cloud based Digital Remote Field Service (DRFS) solution was first deployed successfully in 2016 to maintain gas turbines located in a utility company in Africa by local staff, with experts in Germany remotely supporting them.

Easing operations with Augmented Interactive Reality (AIR)

A field service technician will usually have to carry around bulky equipment. This can include ruggedized tablets, a body camera and an integrated Bluetooth headset mounted on a harness for hands-free operations. To cut down on equipment, progress is being made to integrate smart glass technologies while leveraging Augmented Interactive Reality (AIR) into the working processes of a field service technician. Augmented Interactive Reality represents the Atos approach to form an augmented reality space for its users well-stocked with interactive holographic content. By connecting these digital holograms with business functionalities (e.g. Unified Collaboration Services, PLM based product documentation, etc.) through distributed IT service deliveries, AIR delivers real business value to the field service technician.

In 2016, we launched a research program for digital remote field service operations running on smart glass technologies. The first solution created from the project involves deep integration with HoloLens, Microsoft’s semitransparent smart glass technology, to provide an immersive augmented interactive reality space for field service technicians. This consists of 3D holographic user controls being interlinked with local and cloud-based IT services to establish video-based collaboration sessions with remote experts. This next generation technology of DRFS will enable industrial collaboration using only one integrated smart glass device.

Collaborating with a digital twin

Beside the collaboration features, we are actively working on context-based holographic digital twins (HDT) for smart documentation to explain service operation procedures in the AIR space by dynamic interactive 3D holograms.  Field service engineers will have an extra layer of support to complement the remote expertise by DRFS, as HDTs can explain stepwise complex service operation procedures in an easy to understand way.

Digital documentation via HDTs and collaboration support within the augmented interactive reality space can help field service technicians to execute operations without the need for cost-intensive expert training. Beyond this, technicians can support and maintain the full product portfolio without having to be an expert in each field. Organizations will be able to reap the rewards of having field service generalists with expert-level capabilities facilitated by digital field service support.

By digitizing the field service business with next generation technology, manufacturers will edge closer to making Industry 4.0 a reality. We have presented the smart glass based AIR space at this year’s Hannover Messe demonstrating the next generation of DRFS.

About Thomas Bierhoff

Dr.-Ing. Thomas Bierhoff holds a M.Sc. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering and information technologies and has over 18 years of working experience in R&D ranging from academic and applied research up to industrial product and solution development. Since 1998 he has hold different roles in various companies and entered Atos in 2011 as a head of an R&D Team at Atos research lab C-LAB. In 2015 he took over the head of technology for the Atos business unit Civil and National Security being responsible for innovative technology and solution portfolio development. Since 2016 he leads in parallel a global Atos investment program for strategic technology portfolio and offering development in the domain of digital transformation of industrial field services and operations. Dr. Thomas Bierhoff has published more than 40 journal- and conference papers and holds six patents. He is member of the Atos Scientific community since 2012 and leading corporate research and technology activities for Augmented and Mixed Reality.