Article | September 25, 2018

Empowering The Next Generation Of Field Service Technicians With Augmented Reality

Source: Oracle

By John Ranalli, Senior Product Manager, Oracle

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is the latest emerging technology to captivate the field service industry – It will be key in training a new generation of tech-savvy field technicians and helping service leaders fill the gap of an aging workforce.

The majority of field service operations are concerned about their aging workforce, according to recent research from The Service Council1. Companies today are faced with a demographic shift – as seasoned employees retire, there’s a shortage of experienced technicians to take their place. To fill the gap, service leaders are looking to new technologies to document tribal knowledge while attracting and training a new generation of tech-savvy field technicians.

As one of the first generations to grow up alongside the rise of digital and mobile technology, this younger generation of technicians vastly prefers immersive digital experiences over the heavy manuals of days past. But, those same digital field service experiences can be difficult to simulate in real time, especially given the rapid pace of both software and hardware updates.

Using Augmented Reality to Address the Aging Workforce

Enter augmented reality (AR). AR is the latest emerging technology to captivate the field service industry. Imagine if mobile resources across all areas of field service had standard AR headsets, like they currently do with their laptops or mobile devices? The breadth of capabilities available to each and every technician would be a game changer.

Field service isn’t the only industry to face an aging workforce as Baby Boomers head into retirement, but it is an industry that relies on a lot of tribal know-how and expertise that can’t be easily translated into a written manual. In this respect, AR is a tool that could be used to train this new workforce in a direct and hands-on way. Field service organizations can provide an AR headset or an AR-enabled mobile device as a flexible resource that would be able to run through multiple “what-if” scenarios, allowing technicians to visualize a repair by simply looking through the visor/screen and the machine they are being trained on.

AR also allows technicians to adapt to rapidly changing conditions – like weather, incoming Internet of Things (IoT) data, usage of resources, and more – and quickly diagnose problems to determine next steps. The real-time, integrated capabilities of AR can fundamentally change the way current and future field service technicians train for and perform their day-to-day tasks.

Using AR-enabled guidance, field service organizations can realize new use cases, such as:

  • Training the new workforce in tribal knowledge: Budding technicians can be trained on how to troubleshoot equipment, run diagnostics, replace virtual parts, and test the machine in a way that conveys the more nuanced expertise and know-how that only a seasoned technician could provide. This is possible with the use of a hands-free AR visor, which provides real-time visualization and prescriptive guidance to trainees (compare this to flipping through a written manual or scrolling through a PDF on a mobile device).
  • Training via remote or mobile resources: AR solutions can help organizations cut costs and save time by having technicians train on highly complex equipment without having to fly or drive somewhere to perform the training. AR could also be applied when training someone on a piece of live equipment that is otherwise cost prohibitive. 
    • Practice runs: By extension, AR could also be used to do a “dress rehearsal” of a repair before the technician is actually on site. This use case could be especially important when the functional location of the equipment might be dangerous or subject to limited access.
  • Training and real-time guidance through live support centers: Trainees can also plug into live support center agents who can view repairs in real-time via a technician’s visor, providing yet another resource to technicians that will ease them into working with new machines and difficult or unusual scenarios.
  • The next step – customer training: You could even take AR a step further beyond workforce training and into customer training. What happens when customers have their own headsets and can troubleshoot issues at their own homes, places of work, or job sites? The use of AR in field service could one day help a customer be the “technician” and perform simple and straightforward repairs him or herself.

The main goal behind these AR-empowered use cases is to make a technician more efficient and a “jack of all trades” when it comes to repairs across different machines or functions. AR solutions and their ability to provide real-time, hands-on guidance has the potential to make a technician an expert on something very quickly – which in turn increases the rate of first-time repairs and, subsequently, overall customer satisfaction.

Why You Should Get Started with Augmented Reality Today

Even if you’re not looking to fully deploy AR solutions in your organization today, it’s important for every field service organization to prepare for a new service reality where AR becomes an essential tool to educate, guide, and serve the next generation of technicians.

Before committing to the use of AR in your organization, take time to thoroughly understand where you could implement the technology. Price it out and see if the benefits outweigh the negatives – while AR looks really cool at a demo booth, understand that those are controlled conditions and the stumbling blocks have been well-documented2. Think about how this would work in a real-life scenario and the ongoing maintenance and implementation that is required to deploy AR. Will there be Wi-Fi available to connect your AR visor to the network? Does your data plan cover the amount of data needed for each technician in the field? Do you have a solid IT strategy in place to make sure your hardware and software are always up-to-date? While AR technology could be a game-changing addition to your field service deployments, you want to make sure your implementation compliments your organization’s current technological stack and company-wide expectations.

Also, try out a number of different devices to see what works best for your organization’s specific style of work. There are many AR headsets and providers in the market, so make sure to understand which equipment best suits your organization’s needs. For example, do you want a ruggedized setup for field work, or equipment that is used solely to train technicians in a controlled environment indoors? AR isn’t limited to just headsets and visors, either – you can trial AR-enabled mobile devices and apps that can provide a similar (albeit less hands-on) visualization experience.

With this in mind, the hardware and network technology underpinning most AR solutions still need more work before they are ready for extensive deployment and use. The technology is still fairly new and some of the data that needs to be overlaid is extremely complex and very large – consider factors like data usage limitations and costs when working with very large CAD schematics. Most of the AR equipment now available on the market is also still very fragile and hasn’t been ruggedized yet, meaning the technology will need to get tougher if it is to survive long-term in the field. And while ruggedized AR equipment does exist, they are priced at a premium and often provide limited capabilities when compared to more advanced, consumer-grade equipment.  Finally, field service organizations tend to be the slowest to adopt new technology due to costs and challenges associated with implementation and maintenance, so it could be a long time before something like AR becomes an industry standard.

Admittedly, AR is still a work in progress. Current AR headsets on the market are in a similar state as early-stage cell phones – they work great, but there are questions concerning processing power, battery life, and ruggedness of the devices themselves. However, the cost of the technology is finally at the point where the economics of implementing an AR solution pilot today could finally result in a differentiating, long-term investment.

So, begin by evaluating whether these challenges are easy enough for your organization to tackle. If they’re surmountable, go ahead and begin investing in AR. You’ll develop a reputation as an organization that innovates to help improve conditions for its field techs as well as customers. If the stumbling blocks are too great at this time, work to address them, then re-evaluate in a year. You may be surprised at how quickly you can scale resources to provide emerging technologies for the next generation of field technicians.

References

[1] Sumair Dutta, A Sustainable Field Service Workforce Successfully Navigating The Retirement Crisis (The Service Council, 2017), https://www.servicecouncil.com/research.asp?R=45

[2] Sarah Nicastro, From The Editor: 4 Stumbling Blocks To AR ROI In Field Service, Field Technologies, August 21, 2018, https://www.fieldtechnologiesonline.com/doc/stumbling-blocks-to-ar-roi-in-field-service-0001

About The Author

John Ranalli is a versatile product manager, product evangelist and SaaS marketing enthusiast. John's experience spans the complete sales and customer lifecycle, including requirements gathering, roadmap definition, product marketing, solution consulting, customer release readiness and post implementation support.

At Oracle, John is responsible for global go-to-market product positioning, sales enablement and customer marketing for Oracle Field Service Cloud (OFSC), an enterprise-class field service solution that does business worldwide. Previously, as a Solutions Consultant at Oracle, John worked closely with our sales leaders and customers to build solutions to fit their unique business.

John is most inspired when solving complex technology challenges for enterprise technology vendors and customers and enjoys the ambiguity and opportunity that comes along with exploring new market segments and solution scoping. He is an expert in the highly complex and nuanced field service management industry.