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How AI and augmented reality give maintenance technicians super powers

Xavier Biseul
February 5, 2019
5 min. read

New technologies not only help on-site technicians make the right decisions, they help to improve the accuracy of their actions. The future has arrived!   With technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented reality, business processes can be automated and people have assistance to complete their daily tasks.   Humans and machines complement one another to create a workforce with superior capabilities than either man or machine on its own. Humans bring their creativity and spirit of innovation while machines bring compute power and the ability to work indefinitely without becoming tired of repeating the same tasks.   When workers incorporate new technologies in the right way, they become augmented, or amplified, in their capabilities. These positive benefits counter the common image of a dark, technology-driven future. According to some experts, using artificial intelligence (AI) and robots will eliminate a large number of jobs. The most pessimistic studies say that up to one in two jobs will be eliminated, but these studies don’t consider the jobs that this same digital revolution will create.   Another misconception is that only white-collar workers — those in intellectual professions and executive or supervisory positions are affected by digital transformation. This is not true. The so-called “augmentation” technologies also enhance the physical and mental abilities of blue-collar works. To illustrate this evolution, Accenture published a very interesting report that describes a day in the life of a technician in a time of disruptive technologies.

Anticipate breakdowns, improve service planning

This digital revolution is particularly applicable to maintenance technicians who enjoy new super powers that are far beyond those of the smartphone or tablet they carry wherever they go.   Even before the service request is triggered, machine learning and deep learning algorithms come into play, performing real-time analysis on the data sent back by temperature, humidity, vibration and pressure sensors on customers’ equipment.   The prediction models applied by the algorithms use the continuous flow of measurements from sensors to detect the warning signs of potential failure and make recommendations about the actions to take. The objective is to anticipate breakdowns before they occur.  

Predictive maintenance is a virtuous circle

Predictive maintenance improves the lifespan of customer equipment to significantly reduce on-site service requirements. In addition, depending on the state of the equipment and the recommendations of the AI software, technicians can sometimes also make repairs remotely, for example by applying a hotfix.   The ability to perform remote maintenance help to eliminate unnecessary trips to customer sites and reduce equipment downtime. In this way, it’s similar to a helpline technician who can remotely control a user’s workstation, except there’s no one on the other end of the line to ask about the causes of the breakdown.

Immerse yourself in the future

If, in spite of all efforts, a service call is necessary, the technician arrives at the customer site with detailed insight into the equipment state. In addition, the technician can review the fault history for the same types of equipment and take only those spare parts that are most likely to need replacement.   Before technicians travel to the site, they can use a virtual reality helmet to familiarize themselves with the operating environment and find out where the defective equipment is located. They can even practice the actions they will have to perform as many times as required and make mistakes with no worries of the resulting danger those errors could cause. The mixed reality capabilities provided by Microsoft’s HoloLens technology allows technicians to interact with virtual objects as if they were real.

Use artificial intelligence to help with scheduling

Artificial intelligence can also be used to enhance field service scheduling. Metaheuristic algorithms, such as those used by Praxedo in its SmartScheduler software, consider a large number of factors and can generate optimized schedules. For example, smart scheduling considers:

  • The type of service required

  • The expected duration of the service call

  • Travel time and traffic conditions

  • Technician skills and availability

  • Spare parts inventory levels

This time, its service schedulers who are augmented with technology.

Use augmented reality to put information in technicians’ view

But, back to our on-site technician. He’s now with the equipment that needs to be fixed. This is where augmented reality comes into play. The technician can wear his augmented reality helmet to see contextual information that’s superimposed on the real world.   There’s no need for smartphones or tablets. Technicians have hands-free access to the list of tasks to be performed. They can check the data that indicates equipment status, as well as technical documentation such as schematics, data sheets and instruction manuals, at any time.  

Call on remote experts

Technicians can also be “augmented” by their colleagues. While testing 5G applications “in real-world conditions” in Bordeaux last July, Bouygues Telecom demonstrated how a maintenance technician equipped with a HoloLens helmet could receive guidance from a colleague who was about 10 km away.   If technicians don’t have the right spare part in their vehicle, they can always use their 3D printer to “print” it on-site. All they need to do is download the correct print file.

Leverage exoskeletons to improve working conditions

New technologies can eliminate tasks that are repetitive and painful. In many cases, maintenance technicians must lift and carry heavy items. With an external prosthesis that functions as a kind of robotic exoskeleton, technicians can multiply their physical capabilities and effortlessly carry heavy loads.   These types of exoskeletons can also provide a seat for technicians who spend most of their time on their feet. Not matter how they is used, exoskeletons will improve working conditions for technicians and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).  

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