More than a quick fix: how augmented reality can change maintenance forever

The maintenance business is in need of repair. Fixed assets cost too much to maintain: up to 60% of operational expenditure, according to McKinsey. In the rush to drive down overhead and downtime, some companies are turning to an exciting technology: augmented reality (AR).

Unlike virtual reality, which uses a headset to completely immerse the user in an artificially generated world, AR superimposes virtual images on the real-world environment. Animations and data referencing real objects appear in the user’s field of view.

Although AR games like Pokemon Go quickly lost their shine for consumers, enterprises saw the technology’s potential to hit their maintenance targets. They use virtual headsets that put guides and other imagery directly in front of technicians, while enabling them to work hands-free.

AR’s images might be computer-generated, but the technology’s commercial potential is no mirage: ABI Research puts the market at over $100 billion by 2024, representing a 75% five-year CAGR. In 2020, IDC singled out industrial and public infrastructure maintenance as particular growth areas for the technology in its AR spending guide.

The total augmented reality market will be worth $100 billion by 2024.

AR opens up several use cases for maintenance operations:

Cheaper, faster training

AR’s benefits begin before technicians reach the field. Its use as a training tool enables operators to learn maintenance techniques quickly, while following the appropriate health and safety procedures. Siemens has used the technology to swap paper and tablet-based technical manuals for 3D visualizations that trainees can watch in context while looking at gas turbine parts. This reduces the training time on some components from a day to 45 minutes.

These visualizations, combined with the ability for a remote trainer to see and comment on what the trainee is seeing, make it possible to train independently of location.

Shorter maintenance times

Once out in the field, those visualizations can streamline basic maintenance. The ability to follow an AR checklist when looking at a machine, along with the use of voice interaction to register inspection results, makes inspection and diagnosis faster. During the repair process, technicians see precisely what they need when they need it – without having to take their hands off the machine and reach for a manual.

This has positive implications for health and safety, because it keeps the technician’s focus on the equipment. The AR software can walk them through the correct sequence of maintenance steps, ensuring that they interact with the equipment safely. It is especially useful when dealing with heavy equipment, which could be dangerous when mishandled. AR headsets could also identify any potential health hazards linked to the equipment as the technician performs the work.

Every minute that AR wins back for maintenance teams adds up. In an ROI analysis for AR usage in maintenance applications, the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance (AREA) projected an overall savings of 45 minutes during the inspection, diagnosis and repair process, cutting it to 85 minutes. That has knock-on effects on customer satisfaction and technician productivity.

Coping with COVID-19

It is now clear that the effects of the global pandemic have changed working conditions for the long term. One impact of COVID-19 is restricted access to business locations.

In 2020, Electrolux Professional tackled this problem by empowering customers to conduct some routine maintenance procedures. Its phone- and tablet-based maintenance app Two Pairs of Eyes included an AR mode that enabled its technicians to remotely guide customers through repairs, solving problems 30% faster and with half the errors – all without its own employees having to enter customer sites.

Streamlining back-end productivity

The ROI on AR maintenance increases even more dramatically when the AR device integrates with other systems such as incident processing. AREA projected savings of 50 minutes per day in customer service by exchanging repair and completion orders directly between the device and back-end service management and CRM systems. This automation eliminated the need for customer service employees to open and close service orders.

Bridging the skills gap

AR-powered maintenance becomes increasingly helpful as maintenance procedures become more complex, especially for far-flung fixed assets. Repair procedures involving a nuanced choice of many possible maintenance steps need more technical expertise. In the past, this has meant either sending out a senior technician or using cumbersome phone-based guidance that slows down maintenance and increases costs.

With remote connectivity, senior technicians can use virtual pointers to visually guide colleagues through complex maintenance procedures remotely. This not only reduces the average maintenance call time, but it also enables companies to make better use of their senior technicians.

Elevator company Thyssenkrupp is a case in point. It aims to reduce its elevator downtime by 50% using remote AR guidance from its senior engineers. It has also reduced the length of service times fourfold.

Improving fix rates

More accurate AR guidance, especially with complex maintenance tasks, can also lead to better first-time, same-day fix rates. This reduces the need to swap out equipment with “loaners” to hit their service level agreements with customers if they have to take equipment offsite for repair. In its analysis, AREA projected that an average company could eliminate two of five such loaner machines by switching to AR-powered maintenance.

Visualizing the future

AR may have seemed like science fiction just a few years ago, but the technology has come a long way. Gartner removed AR from its emerging technologies hype cycle in 2019, meaning that it has transitioned from the initial volatile market development stage and is now seen as a mature technology ripe for mass deployment.

However, this doesn’t mean that the technology will stop developing. Advances in connectivity and local computing power will keep pushing AR maintenance forward.

For example, the emergence of 5G will reduce latency and enrich AR-based communications with remote technicians, while reducing reliance on local networks at client sites.

As AR headsets develop in line with the IoT market, there’s another tantalizing prospect: headsets that are sensor-aware. IoT sensors could enable tomorrow’s technicians to see an industrial asset’s operating metrics, such as air or water pressure, floating in their field of view in real time.

The emergence of more powerful chips tailored for AI could also usher in AR headsets with better computer vision capabilities. When combined with 5G-powered cloud connections, it could interpret what it sees or the IoT data it senses. The result? New maintenance instructions and animations that adapt as conditions change.

While AR may now be mature, there is still plenty of room to innovate with the technology in maintenance use cases. Its potential is there, right before your eyes.

From smart glasses to big data, increasingly sophisticated digital solutions are used for maintenance operations, thereby enhancing the capabilities of already versatile technicians. 5G will help develop these practices by making them more efficient and more comfortable, always with the goal of saving time and improving efficiency. Read more in this article: 5G: an ally of augmented technicians for maintenance operations.