Across industries, assets and equipment have made giant leaps in terms of sophistication and complexity, creating hard questions for maintenance departments about how best to keep up.
For some, augmented reality (AR) can be an important part of the answer.
What is augmented reality in maintenance?
In broad strokes, it is the implementation of smart technology to help maintenance professionals learn and practice new procedures. In some cases, it can be a replacement for paper manuals and instructions for standard operating procedures.
So, instead of reading a description or looking at a static image on a page while working out how best to complete a preventive maintenance task, with AR, a maintenance tech can see key information lined up with the actual physical asset. Instead of having a clear break between the asset and the documentation, there's now a real-time combination.
How is augmented reality different than virtual reality?
One, it's the differences in devices. Remember that augmented reality uses cellphones and tablets. You line the built-in camera with the object you want to work on, look at the screen, and you can see text and images overtop the real, physical object. But with virtual reality, you have to use a headset, which covers your field of view completely.
Two, it's the differences in "realities." With augmented reality, you're still dealing with the same everyday reality you always do. The difference is that, on the screen, the technology is enhancing it with overlays of hovering text and interactive images. But with virtual reality, it's an entirely made-up world, separate from regular, everyday reality.
Which maintenance tasks are a good match for augmented reality?
Not all of them. In fact, the technology works best when you limit it to tasks with easily defined steps.
It's not that you can't use AR for sharing more general maintenance knowledge, because you can. The problem is that in many cases what you end up with is simply a more expensive, less effective training process.
What are the advantages of augmented reality in maintenance?
You can use AR to directly address many of the traditional drawbacks associated with training maintenance staff.
When training is one-on-one, it can be a struggle to find times when both your senior and junior techs are free. And even when you can juggle their schedules, you are taking your most experienced staff away from their regular tasks. Although there are long-term benefits to investing in junior techs, there are also short-term costs in terms of lost productivity.
With AR systems, because they're able to learn more independently, techs can access training at any time. You don't have to worry about modifying two or more schedules or sacrificing productivity.
Assets and equipment are complex, and every time someone works on them, there's a change something could go wrong. Something as simple as not closing a hatch properly could set off a costly chain reaction.
With augmented reality, techs have a chance to try out new procedures without having to work directly on assets and equipment. They can take an unlimited number of virtual do-overs without risking real damage.
AR also helps you make things safer for your maintenance team. Assets can quickly become dangerous. For example, at a chemical plant, even small mistakes can sometimes lead to explosions. Because AR is so much more forgiving, you don't have to worry about techs injuring themselves while trying to learn how to do tasks safely.
It's the same reason flight simulators are so popular. It's a lot safer to teach someone how to fly a plane when they have an unlimited number of consequence-free mistakes. And it's the same when teaching someone how to maintain and repair a plane. It's a lot cheaper and safer if they don't start working on the plane directly right away.
Real-time remote work
There are situations where no one onsite has the right combination of skill and experience to maintain or repair an asset. In the past, that might have meant endlessly emailing pictures back and forth with an offsite expert. But with AR, technicians can receive real-time explanations and coaching through their devices.
For example, a tech can hold their phone up to the asset, beaming real-time video to a remote expert. But what makes this more than just a standard video chat is how that expert can then draw on and add augmented text that floats above the asset on the screen, creating a clear path to the right maintenance or repairs.
What are the disadvantages of augmented reality in maintenance?
Like all new technologies, you have to make sure your operations are a good fit. In the end, it doesn't matter how exciting the new developments look, they only offer benefits in specific situations.
For AR, it works best with processes that are standardized and have established steps. But even if you do have many of these processes, there are a wide range of costs associated with getting set up. On top of the software, you also need accurate 3D models of your assets. And then there's the expertise and labor that goes into carefully combining the two.
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As new technologies become more and more common across industries, maintenance departments need to find the best ways to keep up. One proven way is by implementing their own new technologies, and in some cases, that can include augmented reality. Unlike virtual reality, where everything is computer generated, AR lets you use the cameras in cellphones and tablets to superimpose images and texts over real objects. Now, instead of having a clear line between instructions and assets, techs have an interactive combination in real time. Benefits include training that's easier, has fewer short-term costs, and is safer for both your assets and technicians.
About the author
Jonathan has been covering asset management, maintenance software, and SaaS solutions since joining Hippo CMMS. Prior to that, he wrote for textbooks and video games.