Augmented Reality Delivers a New Standard of Service to Industrial Machinery Manufacturers

The Importance of Service to the Manufacturing Sector

Industrial Machinery and Equipment (IM&E) manufacturers form an integral part of the manufacturing supply chain as their equipment plays a critical role in the automation of production processes such as shaping, extruding, molding, crimping, cutting, folding, etc. If these machines are not working properly then the entire manufacturing process may grind to a halt. In addition, every manufacturing process has its own set of specialized machinery. For example, manufacturing equipment in the food processing industry is different from equipment found in the apparel manufacturing industry.  

The market for such equipment is large and diverse but also fragmented. For example, the US Census Bureau’s North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) indicates there are over 26,700 suppliers of Industrial Machinery and Manufacturing Equipment in the United States alone. These companies distribute, install, and service equipment found in over 300,000 manufacturing establishments across the U.S. Furthermore, there are dozens of different sub-segments and market niches of manufacturing found around the globe. Indeed, every manufactured product you can think of can be classified into a sub-segment or niche.      

IM&E is typically designed and engineered to extremely precise quality standards and technical requirements of the customers who operate these machines. This is because each customer may have a different type of result they want the machine to produce.  In addition, the machines must also perform at very high levels of reliability in order to keep manufacturing processes operating at optimal levels of productivity. However, there are occasions when these machines don’t operate properly. This could be for any number of reasons: environmental conditions in the factory, electrical connectivity issues, normal wear and tear, component failure, or operator error. Regardless of the cause, if the machine stops working, the supply chain comes to a halt.    Assembly lines stop running, production ceases, goods don’t leave factories, cargo ships remain empty and wait at docks, and products don’t hit shelves in a timely manner. The lost value to manufacturers of machine downtime is extremely high. It is not atypical for a manufacturer to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in lost revenue due to machine downtime. In other words, there is a high value in use for IM &E within the manufacturing industry.

“There is high value in use for Industrial Machinery & Equipment within the manufacturing industry. Equipment Service providers are motivated to do whatever is necessary to minimize downtime”

Given this high value in use, manufacturers expect IM&E suppliers to do whatever it takes to fix problems quickly and minimize delays and disruptions to their business.  Of course, the equipment suppliers are highly motivated and incentivized to respond in a timely manner.  Unhappy customers damage their reputations and bad news travels fast.

Challenges to Keeping Factories Running

Providing fast and efficient service in the industrial machinery world is no small feat for manufacturers. Diagnosing and resolving equipment problems quickly is challenging when the machinery is highly complex, the installed base is relatively low and plants are scattered worldwide. Service organizations of IM&E suppliers are usually staffed by a small cadre of field service engineers (FSEs) and technical experts. These market dynamics lead to an environment where IM&E FSEs possess deep subject-matter expertise in some but not all product lines. The FSE who assembles and installs the machine is often the same person who diagnoses the problem and initiates corrective action.    

“Equipment service providers constantly strive to minimize the service-knowledge gap that exists between their technicians and customers.”

Providing high quality service becomes even more complex for IM&E suppliers as most of the machines are not standardized and are tailor made to customer specifications. A plastic extrusion machine installed at Company A may have a completely different configuration and form factor than a similar one at Company B. There is limited standardization between machines. The FSE who installed the machine at Company A maybe the only one who has familiarity with that machine, hence the only one with the knowledge to repair it. As a result, there is often a huge knowledge gap among and between both customers and FSEs. To make matters even more challenging, language barriers can make it difficult for customers in one country to communicate with FSEs in another and vice versa. Furthermore, machines often have a long service tail. They may be in operation for 10 or 20 years and thus there may be no one at the customer’s site who has the knowledge to maintain the equipment properly. Tribal service knowledge, where knowledge that rests in the minds of individual FSEs is shared with others through verbal communication, is the norm within the IM&E service market.

The Service Conundrum

IM&E manufacturers typically help customers resolve service issues by first attempting to diagnose and resolve problems over the telephone prior to dispatching a FSE to repair the machine. However, there are certain times when the service expert cannot resolve the issue remotely. Perhaps the problem requires a part change or onsite repair. In other cases, the remote service expert may not understand what the customer is describing over the telephone or vice versa, or maybe the technician simply needs to see the problem for himself. The customer could try to send a video or photo of the problem to the technician but often this is not enough information to solve the problem.   When situations like these occur, the FSE must travel to the customer’s site to troubleshoot, diagnose, and resolve the problem. 

Onsite travel is both time-consuming and expensive. It may involve a flight to another country and days at the customer site to resolve the issue. Capacity constraints may prevent that technician from traveling to the customer’s site. Also, if the FSE is at the customer’s site, no one else may be available to handle incoming requests from other customers.

At times the IM&E supplier may need to send an alternative FSE if the primary FSE with knowledge of the machine is helping another customer. There is a slim chance that the FSE who arrives onsite may not have seen this issue before and needs additional assistance to resolve the problem. In this case, the onsite FSE assigned may need to telephone a more experienced technician for back-up support. Other challenges include the fact that many IM&E suppliers do not charge for service, (i.e., they operate their service organization as a cost center).  Furthermore, lengthy road trips add significantly to operating costs and place a great deal of stress on technicians. 

Being a FSE in this environment is tantamount to being a road warrior.  While this has become the norm within the IM&E market it is by no means the preferred ways of doing business. IM&E suppliers and their customers are constantly pushing their service organizations to do deliver faster, better, and cheaper service.  While the service organization can utilize information systems and mobile communication to provide highly efficient remote support, there are still situations that require visual observation of the equipment.

From Road Warrior to Service Hero

Fortunately, IM&E Manufacturers now have a solution to their challenges; Augmented Reality. Fieldbit is a leading pioneer in developing AR solutions exclusively for the service and support environment. The company provides an end-to-end interactive collaboration platform for equipment manufacturers and users. The platform enables remote experts to send precise visual instructions to FSEs using real-time augmented reality, live video, messaging and voice.  

Fieldbit has several customers within the industrial machinery and equipment manufacturing industry.  As such, the company has several implementations of their Fieldbit Hero™ product and has thought through many practical use cases for this technology. Fieldbit is unique in in that it can be deployed almost immediately.  Remote support specialists, field engineers, and even end customers can begin using the platform immediately. It is a plug and play solution and there is very little setup or implementation involved. This is a stark contrast to competitive systems on the market that involve long, costly and complex implementations.

By using smart glasses or a smart phone, machine operators at the customer site can capture a video image of the equipment and then transmit it to the equipment manufacturer’s service technician at another location. If it is a relatively simple issue, for example, one that can be resolved through a customer replaceable unit, the remote support specialists can send images, text, and annotated repair instructions back to the customer so that the customer can resolve the issue himself. This saves time and money, as downtime and lost productivity is minimized for the customer. A live chat session can also be opened so that the customer and technician can communicate in real-time.

Considering FSE travel and per diem costs (e.g., meals, hotel, etc.) to another country can be quite expensive, savings from providing remote support through the Fieldbit platform can add up to thousands of dollars per service event.  This is a huge savings given the fact that a large percentage of service issues are the result of end-user (e.g., machine operator) error.  In fact, a 50% improvement in remote resolution rates is possible with Fieldbit.

The Fieldbit platform also makes it possible for IM&E suppliers to improve first-time fix rates.  Repeat visits to solve the same problem are costly for the IM&E service provider, not to mention stressful and embarrassing to their FSEs. Normally, if the FSE lacks proper parts and/or skills to enable a fix, he must return or wait onsite until the correct resources are supplied. However, with Fieldbit, the remote service specialist can obtain rich contextual information about the machine problem, isolate or identify the fault, and then determine what skills and parts the FSE needs to have with him when he arrives onsite.  The FSE can also use the live chat to communicate with the remote support specialist while onsite if additional troubleshooting and diagnostics are required. Once onsite, the FSE can also use the Fieldbit platform to communicate with other field service experts in to gain technical insights that the remote support specialist may not possess.  Utilizing Fieldbit to improve FSE proficiency minimizes the percentage of times onsite service calls are broken or extended due to the lack of spare parts or skills, and improve “First Time Fix” rates by 30% or more.

Another practical application of Fieldbit is the creation of a self-learning knowledge base.  For example, remote support specialists can use the platform to develop step-by-step repair procedures for resolving equipment issues. This can be conducted in real-time or offline, the procedure is recorded in “snippets” that are stored in a searchable database.  When a customer or FSE encounters a similar situation, he can search the database for the right solution. The technical learning curve is shortened and on-the-job training time can be reduced by as much as 40% using this approach. There is no need to “recreate the wheel” each time someone encounters that same problem because the answers are readily available within the searchable database.

Fieldbit also plays a critical role in extending both equipment uptime and improving production quality. The Fieldbit Hero™ platform can be utilized to support installations and planned/unplanned equipment maintenance activities. Remote support specialists can observe maintenance activities and bring additional perspective to the inspection process, perform quality assurance, identify issues, and pre-empt problems that may lead to future failures.

“The benefits of using Fieldbit are clear… improved customer satisfaction, lower costs, improved quality, and high ROI”

Several of Fieldbit’s customers have also been able to monetize the value of their investment in the Fieldbit platform.  Recognizing the high value in use for machine uptime and the tremendous impact Fieldbit Hero™ plays in cost avoidance. Several of Fieldbit customers have begun to include downloadable, one-time-use licenses for Fieldbit Hero™ in service level agreements they sell to their end-customers (i.e. machine users). These end customers can of course purchase additional licenses when they need them. However, the benefit is clear: Fieldbit not only improves customer satisfaction and reduces service delivery costs, but drives additional profit to the IM&E supplier’s bottom line. End customers are more than willing to pay a fee for the right to use Fieldbit because of the benefit it provides.

The Benefits Speak for Themselves

In summary, Fieldbit Hero™ has been utilized by several IM&E suppliers to reduce troubleshooting time, improve diagnostics, capture and share knowledge, and generate additional service revenue. Within months of deploying Fieldbit Hero™, customers have been able save time, reduce costs, and generate additional profits. Service issues are resolved in hours rather than days. Onsite service visits are eliminated or avoided altogether. IM&E suppliers can provide excellent after-sales service in addition to best in-class equipment.  It is for these reasons that IM&E suppliers should view Fieldbit Hero™ as an innovation they cannot be without.

Author: Michael R. Blumberg of Blumberg Advisory Group, Inc.

 

Highlights

  • Reduce troubleshooting time
  • Improve diagnostics
  • Capture and share knowledge
  • Generate additional service revenue