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Time to Outfit Your Mobile Workers with AR/VR?

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Paul Korzeniowski's picture
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Paul is a seasoned (basically old) freelance B2B content producer. Through the years, he has written more than 10,000 items (blogs, news stories, white papers, case studies, press releases and...

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Utilities deploy large complex devices, like wind turbines and transformers, and then send field technicians to service the gear on a regular basis. They sometimes fumble through manuals and computer screens or need to call experts to maintain and troubleshoot the equipment. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) solutions are emerging to simplify the process.

AR/VR blends the digital and the physical worlds. The new reality mixes local physical elements; sensory experiences, such as sight, touch, and sound; and virtual simulations to create new types of interactions. Using a head mounted device, individuals access extra (augmented) information to streamline tasks that are performed on site or remotely. The exchanges occur in real time, and a user's actions shape the rendered virtual elements.

AR/VR Use Cases

To date, the technology has been used mainly in entertainment: games and 3-D movies, but AR/VR has many potential energy industry applications. Training is one area where it is becoming popular. The simulations provide technicians with the ability to learn and test their skills without having to travel to a site.  They also walk through the process, and ideally, the system helps them to correct any mistakes.

AR enables hands-free experiences.  Technicians can read though a manual or watch a video as they service a device. There is no longer a need to look up the information on a laptop or read from a manual sitting in the truck.

Repairing energy equipment can be dangerous. In some cases, field techs work with live wires and encounter treacherous natural and weather related conditions. AR/VR systems can warn them about and prevent potential problems.

Because of the potential benefits, interest in the technology is skyrocketing. The worldwide AR/VR headset market grew 92.1% year over year in 2021 with shipments reaching 11.2 million units, according to International Data Corporation (IDC).

Avoid Possible Roadblocks

However, the technology faces hurdles in its quest for adoption. These solutions need to be integrated with applications, like Field Service Management systems. The AR/VR tools are new and often lack the well-developed Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) needed to easily plug them into other solutions. Utilities have little to no experience with the tools and may need to bring in outside help to connect all of the elements.

Typically, humans resist change, and the alterations in workflow are significant. Utilities will need to take time communicating how the new processes work and how they benefit employees in order to get the buy in needed to smooth out the transition.

Utilities maintain large, complex, expensive devices. The traditional approach has been time consuming and required a lot of manual input. AR/VR offers them the opportunity to streamline the process, reduce costs, and improve safety. However, the technology is new and must overcome integration and resistance challenges for its use to become common.

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Paul Gwaltney's picture
Paul Gwaltney on Apr 29, 2022

Good article.  I think this offers tremendous potential.  When I joined a gas utility several years ago, I immediately asked why our field workers could not use Google Glass to 'see' our buried infrastructure.  Of course, it's complicated, as you suggest.  Data, systems, and integrations all seem to present roadblocks.  I think there is also a cultural component. Utilities are not known to move at an agile speed and internal budgeting and roadmapping exercises are vastly outpaced by technology changes.  

Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Apr 30, 2022

Agree. The technology is often not the most significant barrier to adoption. Inertia is. We humans do not like change. We are comfortable with processes we know and often intimidated by those we do not. Management needs to be quite patient whenever dramatically changing a business process. 

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