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The Future of Field Service: Three Use Cases for Smart Connected Operations

[Editor's note: this information was presented in a showcase webinar, which you can watch on-demand here]

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be devastating for many companies. Those that have survived have dramatically lost speed and efficiency as they made operational adjustments to adhere to new WHO guidelines.

Yet, among its devastating effects, COVID-19 also provided the ideal testing ground for digitally proficient enterprises to validate the effectiveness of the technologies they had been investing in.

This is the case for companies who were already driving transformation around the way they conduct field services. Most of the problem areas in field service pre-date the pandemic.

In this article, Kalypso examines three key opportunity areas around the field service experience.

These use cases cover a range of technologies, from easy-to-implement to more sophisticated, and they illustrate important ways companies can transform to respond effectively to customers’ expectations in a post-pandemic world.

  • Leverage digital technologies to enable remote access for field service
  • Increase on-site staff efficiency with augmented reality (AR) work instructions
  • Apply advanced analytics to optimize planning and scheduling of service activities

The Benefit of a Smart Connected Operations (SCO) Approach to Field Service

Before we jump into the use cases, it’s important to level-set on the scope of the problem and how digitizing field service operations can help.

Traditionally, provisioning field service involves long lead times and costly site visits. As shown in the image below, after a machine breaks down the process includes identifying the issue, raising a support call, waiting for the engineer’s visit and troubleshooting. In more complex cases, it also includes ordering spare parts and a second visit to perform the repair.

However, using a Smart Connected Operations (SCO)-enabled field service provision, the field service organization (FSO) can batch many of these steps into one, reducing the technician’s onsite visit and ensuring that the technician is properly informed through every step of the way.

With a smart connected approach to operations, machines can warn personnel ahead of time when specific parts are likely to reach performance thresholds. This allows field workers to either work remotely with on-site personnel to service the machine or order replacement parts in advance for field service technicians to repair the machine.

In a SCO-enabled setting, the field service technician is assigned to the visit site on an optimized travel schedule, responding preventatively as opposed to reactively. Ideally, the technician would receive all replacement instructions through an augmented reality (AR) guide, shortening the turnaround time from machine failure to repair.

The following use cases will bring these ideas to life.

Use Case 1: Digital Technologies Enable Remote Access for Field Service

In the future, we can expect some ongoing requirements for socially distanced work, so field service companies have an opportunity to upgrade their offering to include smart-connected products (devices leveraging Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity) to better serve customers with industrial factory plants. For many companies, adhering to WHO guidelines keeps their workforce safe, but reduces productivity of business operations. This has given rise to the use of remote access solutions to manage and service devices without the need for site visits.

The benefits of a remote service model add up quickly. For example, one international manufacturer of integrated therapy systems had a network of 20,000 devices at 5,000 hospitals. Their shift to remote service has saved four to eight hours of travel time for each customer inquiry and a 50% reduction in mean time to repair (MTTR)

With 700 telephone consultations now resolved remotely per month, the cost savings really add up.

And remote access goes beyond reducing support costs. It also prolongs the longevity of the machinery and reduces downtime, maximizing the value of the machine.

Here’s an example.

Rockwell Automation is a multi-national provider of industrial automation and software solutions. In March 2020, when a critical machine installation planned the previous year was just a few weeks away, it became clear that due to travel restrictions, Rockwell would not be able to send a team of field engineers to their customer. But without that new machine, the paper manufacturer’s production would plummet, causing not just a revenue loss, but a shortage of essential products on the market.

Suddenly, going live with Live View Support – a service that Rockwell had planned to launch much later in the year – became urgent. Live View Support leverages augmented video calling during remote support calls. It is powered by PTC’s Vuforia Chalk, which can be run on any handheld device.

Just ten days before the installation, the local field service engineer downloaded Vuforia Chalk and started testing the remote assistance technology.

The app allowed the customer to connect with experienced Rockwell technicians to share a live feed of the issues they encountered in the field. The customer could also to mark up the image, highlighting problem areas. Remote expert engineers were able to draw on-screen instructions for site workers to follow in real time, making the machine installation possible in under two days.

The paper manufacturer avoided a supply crisis, and the experience effectively proved that on-site assistance is not the only way to manage plant installation and service. Remote access delivered cost-effective resolution with a comparable lead time to a physical visit.

Another way companies can digitally enable remote access is software content management (SCM), which enables the creation of packages for immediate (or future) deployment of over-the-air updates. These packages can include software updates, security patches, audit logs, and file transfer.

As an example, one Kalypso client leveraging SCM is a major medical device manufacturer that partners with laboratories around the world. They have over 30,000 globally connected medical devices in the field. With SCM, they were quickly able to update their connected devices with new parameters to test for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, over-the-air, without having to send a field service technician onsite.

Use Case 2: Augmented Reality-Assisted Work Instructions for On-Site Field Service

In addition to enabling fully remote service in the example above, AR can also provide support for on-site field service. For example, the Digital Assist Library is Rockwell Automation’s cloud-based repository of augmented reality experiences, which was built to empower field workers to perform maintenance and repair procedures themselves.

Local maintenance technicians were finding the existing manuals cumbersome and struggling to find instructions to perform the tasks that were relevant to their specific case. There was also a real risk of misinterpreting the steps.

The Digital Assist Library leverages PTC’s Vuforia View app to search for and display, on handheld and wearable devices, easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions for over 100 service procedures.

In a timed test run on the field, a service technician performing a maintenance procedure following the AR instructions completed it 62% faster than another technician reading instructions from the manual. Combined with the high user-friendliness of the app – which was rated 4.5 out of 5 for ease of use – the benefits case for AR work instructions is substantial. It also allows the customer to download the experience for offline use and to ‘learn by doing’ which delivers increased knowledge retention.

Use Case 3: Advanced Analytics and AI for Predictive Maintenance

As we saw above, connected products provide a host of benefits, including over-the-air updates and reduced site visits via remote assistance. Connected products also allow the application of advanced analytics on the data collected by these devices for predictive maintenance.

Another Kalypso client – a major supplier and distributor of natural gas compressors – needed a way to predict when their compressors would fail. Distributors of gas compressors deliver very large pieces of industrial equipment, which are typically spread out over very remote locations. For instance, one of the distributors we worked with traveled about 800,000 miles per month to service these compressor units.

First, we leveraged the distributor’s data, gathered from their connected devices, to identify the typical maintenance cycle of a compressor. Then we used artificial intelligence (AI) to predict when a compressor is likely to fail, so that when the system detects an impending failure or critical status, it raises a notification to supervisors 30 minutes before the compressor breaks down. This predictive measure allows the distributor to perform a controlled shutdown.

With Kalypso’s help, the distributor was able to batch-plan their shutdowns and remote service calls, optimizing the amount of time that the operators and field technicians would have to spend in the field. We then developed AR applications for field service technicians to visualize information about the health of the machine and to access manuals and work instructions.

The beneficiaries of this service are not just the end users, but also the distributor’s internal design/engineering team. These teams are now better prepared to track quality metrics and actual unit performance, when previously they had little understanding of how end users were using equipment. By understanding the true usage of compressors in the field, the design/engineering teams can optimize the design for longevity.

The Bottom Line

Every industry has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with varying degrees of severity based on their digital maturity prior to the pandemic. While some companies may have a stronger resilience to changing business operations, others will struggle to acclimatize themselves in the future. For field service companies, the difference will come in the form of smart connected operations.

The examples in this article illustrate how tangible, attainable benefits, such as reductions in MTTR and travel costs – as well as avoiding exposure to COVID-19 – are within reach of companies willing to digitally transform field service operations.

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