October 12, 2020

The Visualisation Pipeline is Key for Field Maintenance

Operations & Maintenance
John Murray
Product Manager

It’s about more than simply sending torque settings

It’s not entirely realistic to try and cover ‘maintenance’ as a global topic as there are so many different domains to consider. The technician working on a precision wafer deposition machine may not immediately recognise a team of rope-access technicians hanging over the side of a North Sea oil platform as peers.

Nevertheless, there are many common threads that unite these apparently different scenarios and everything between. Some of them almost go without saying. Operator and site safety is such a fundamental requirement and often so ingrained in day-to-day operation that it’s rarely overlooked. However, it’s often possible to forget to challenge whether it can be handled more efficiently even while increasing effectiveness.

Scheduling and predicting maintenance

An area that has perhaps demonstrated more scope for innovation has been the scheduling of maintenance and the use of predictive maintenance to increase plant ‘up time’. The aim is to ensure that the right balance is struck between minimising the impact of preventative maintenance and not risking a breakdown. In an era of where most prefer to lease a capability rather than buying a product, as typified by ‘power-by-the-hour’ model in aerospace, this is a topic of particular significance.

Expertise and variability

Finally, there’s the question of expertise and experience. Years served by a technician is still a somewhat useful measure of expertise, but not an infallible one. High levels of variability in configuration are possible for even nominally ‘off-the-shelf’ machines.  This in turn means that even those who’ve been-around-the-block a few times can regularly face equipment configurations or installations that are new to them. As a result, even the most experienced technician may find themselves wading through vast documentation and complex wiring diagrams to try and understand what may be of relevance in a particular case.

Hardly an ideal scenario.

There is no magic bullet to ease the burden of complexity and risk in modern field operations. However, effective communication must be regarded as the minimum requirement for an effective organisation.

Unfortunately, What makes for effective communication changes rapidly over time, between regions, cultures, professions and even departments. Then, add in the context of the situation the technician finds themselves in: under pressure, tired, working remotely and a host of other factors that may limit their capacity to absorb critical information.

If visualisation has a role to play at all, it’s to eliminate much of the cognitive load that a colleague would otherwise have to apply to truly comprehend and absorb new information. The superpower we refer to so often in our messaging is about precisely this: being able to achieve that understanding - either of a colleague’s problem, or of the particulars of a complex scenario - within seconds.

VR, or more broadly speaking, XR has the proven ability to place you in the appropriate context and situation, no matter how removed from your immediate surroundings, without requiring you to invest a lot of your valuable cognitive resources to achieve it. Of course, people have been managing to overcome this hurdle for as along as teams have worked together, but it’s a costly, error prone and wasteful affair.

Visualisation can be a route to shortcut this process.

Why ‘can’ and not ‘is’? Simply because a visualisation - no matter what technology is used, no matter how well produced - is not necessarily enough. It’s got to be part of a more structured approach to communication.

This is why in developing Virtalis Reach we’ve been focusing on the entire information pipeline, reducing the level of effort to produce and distribute visualisations at one end; removing some of the barriers for accessing at the other. Ensuring that information is controlled and maintained throughout.

Intuitive service bulletins, automated

Creating pipelines for items such as service bulletins can be made a largely automated process, using source data from the engineering group directly. Any unnecessary or sensitive data is automatically stripped out and relevant service information added.

Field technicians can call up this information on their hand held devices and interact with it as and when needed. Work on larger or remote installations can be planned in advance with the latest information on layout displayed in an immersive 3D environment. Tasks can be run multiple times virtually to ensure that everyone understands their role and snags are identified and avoided before anyone goes onsite.

Effective visualisation for maintenance and repair isn’t only, or even largely, a function of rendering technology or graphics. It depends upon an organisation being able to responsively, flexibly and routinely deliver comprehension and understanding to those at the sharp end.

This is the superpower we’re looking to bottle in Virtalis Reach. I hope it begins to explain why we’ve placed such a premium on information flow, accessibility and security (these last two go hand in hand: the irony is that sharing information freely can only really happen when you can do it securely).  This is a topic that’s particularly key for maintenance operations, where you’re often working with colleagues at remote locations who may even be from partner companies.  Ensuring that those at the sharp end have access to the information they need while maintaining control over sensitive information will be a key differentiator for service operations in the digital age.

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