Augmented Reality drives real change in remote training and safety
04 August 2021
Augmented reality technology is allowing field engineers to connect directly to off-site experts for more efficient maintenance, data collection, training and safety, as Kim Fenrich, global AR/VR and digital services product manager, ABB Process Automation, explains.
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Once the domain of gamers, augmented reality (AR) now has multiple uses in the industrial space as companies recognise that putting this visual enhancement technology into the hands of field workers can improve safety, reduce human error and increase operational efficiency.
An advantage of AR is that it can provide data to users in a specific context of an operational asset, with three-dimensional imagery and instructional text laid over specific components; expediting both the understanding of instructions and follow up action. This capability makes data more meaningful, improves situational awareness, and enables fast, real-time collaboration with experts.
AR is being employed in all phases of industrial plant lifecycles to provide visual, interactive guidance. A recent study by Aberdeen Research found that 23% of customers’ issues were not resolved on the first visit. Using AR effectively can improve quality and consistency of field work, and significantly reduce costs by eliminating rework and travel expense.
Augmented and mixed reality explained
What exactly is AR? Simply, AR is the overlay of digital images or data onto real-world objects. It is one of several technologies that enhances a user’s visual perception of their environment or replaces it completely.
Unlike virtual reality (VR), where the user is completely immersed in a digitally created artificial environment, AR adds to a real-world visual perspective by projecting digital data or objects on top of actual objects. In an industrial environment, this allows the user to stay aware of their physical surroundings, freeing both hands and eyes from paper documentation, and benefitting more directly from instructional information.
Another version of this technology is mixed reality (MR). MR extends AR functionality by allowing the user to interact with the digital object by manipulating it rather than only viewing a static image. Another iteration of this technology is extended reality (XR), which is a combination of AR and MR.
While AR technologies continue to mature, they are gaining acceptance in industry due to their ability to help users learn, visualise, interact and expedite issue resolution. For example, object recognition technology is currently being used in industry to ensure an asset being worked on in the field is the correct one.
This technology works by overlaying a digital 3D image on the physical equipment using the camera of a phone or tablet. Once the AR system detects it is the correct asset, the guided step-by-step procedure is automatically started. This ensures that when an engineer or maintenance technician is sent into the field to perform a task such as recalibrating a transmitter or replacing a part, operations management knows that it will be performed on the correct asset.
AR industrial use cases
AR or MR technology, deployed on tablets, smartphones, glasses or headsets, are an excellent training tool. Interactive 3D models of a real industrial facility, along with procedure and process models, is now being used to train and certify operations and maintenance teams.
Imagine a scenario in which a critical asset in a remote location, such as offshore, an oil & gas pipeline or a mine, needed to be addressed. Previously, a certified engineer with specific domain expertise may have had to take a lengthy international flight or be flown by helicopter. This could be very costly in terms of maintenance expenditure, missed production opportunity and even safety risk. Such a scenario was made even more difficult in 2020 due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
By using AR, companies can conduct the work safely from a remote location and at a fraction of the cost, while at the same time upskilling personnel. With this technology, an engineer or maintenance technician who arrives on site and finds the job is different from what they expected can connect with an expert via a video call, who can see the same thing the local person sees, and together they can address the situation expeditiously and cost-effectively.
Visual Remote Support
ABB has applied its version of this technology for an energy company which required maintenance on an oil and gas platform off the coast of Africa. Rather than proceed through a list of verbal instructions, a remote expert contacted an engineer on the platform through an AR headset. This arrangement allowed the onshore expert to see exactly what the field worker saw, and draw step-by-step instructions that could be viewed on the field worker’s tablet, alongside their headset. This is where AR comes into its own; taking the eyes and ears of the expert and placing them virtually alongside a local resource to jointly address a field situation.
Case study: motors and drives training
ABB recently launched a training programme remotely where its domain experts were able to train and recertify new and existing business partners to be able to work with new products. Rather than trainees gathering in a single office, ABB sent a drive device to each business partner along with an AR headset. The drives experts then used traditional classroom training via Microsoft Teams, with both audio and visual instructions via the AR headsets. With this program, one instructor was able to teach and monitor four trainees simultaneously. Other key benefits: were that the training was able to go ahead when it would have otherwise been impossible due to pandemic restrictions. Other benefits were that engineers became more productive during times of low utilisation and partners were able to remain certified so that they could continue servicing customers.
Kim Fenrich, ABB Process Automation
ABB could also use fewer experts to train a larger number of people (i.e. experts could conduct multiple classes per week instead of just one) and people from multiple locations could participate in the same training course. Attendees were trained without incurring travel costs, and the trainees gained hands-on experience with drives equipment from global experts.
AR and MR are still in their infancy in terms of technology and its adoption in the industrial world. There are hurdles: in order to see the benefits of AR, those who deploy the technology must first build 3-dimensional models of the assets being addressed, embed the necessary guidance into the system, and arrange a network of competent experts to interact with the local AR users.
As is often the case, early adopters of this new technology are the ones gaining the fastest rewards. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, AR was viewed as a futuristic technology. Now, having experienced situations in which companies were unable to deploy employees with the requisite skill sets where they were needed, the adoption of such services is accelerating.
By putting virtual expertise into the hands of field workers, AR has the potential to mitigate human error, improve safety and operational efficiency, reduce the time spent using and interpreting data, and truly transform the future of work.
About the author:
Kim Fenrich is currently Digital Services Product Manager for ABB Process Automation, Energy Industries. In this role he leads the global development of innovative digital products and services that bridge technology and practicality to help customers optimise performance. He has over 30 years of automation industry experience, across a wide variety of disciplines and industries including power generation, process and manufacturing. His roles have included field service, product management and marketing, business development, and IoT enterprise solution architect. Kim holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Akron, and currently lives near Wilmington, North Carolina.
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