12 Feb 2020

From Smarter Products to Faster Fix Times, Here’s How Augmented Reality Benefits Customers

Walter Davis Interview

When you rent business-critical equipment, you need to be absolutely certain that if anything goes wrong, you can get the support you need in an instant.

This creates a major challenge for companies that rent and service units. Their technical support teams must be highly trained and experienced with each and every item in their fleet. They must be able to update their skills quickly whenever individual items get upgraded or replaced. They must have the confidence to tackle any tech problem swiftly and decisively. Every second that goes to waste, after all, means lost revenues for you.

At the same time, many companies in the utilities sector are dealing with a yawning skills gap. In the US in 2019, Forbes reports that there were 1.1 million more skilled labor jobs advertised than skilled laborers looking for jobs. 10,000 electricians retire every year, but only 7,000 newbies enter the profession to replace them. 

This means that many companies are (rightly) looking for better ways to up-skill their existing workforce, as well as for effective ways to attract younger people into these vital roles. Now, the most forward-thinking have hit on an excellent solution: Augmented Reality (AR) training.

First, let’s clarify what we mean when we say “AR”. Put simply, AR combines the real world with digital elements to help you understand better what you’re looking at. There are a few different ways you can do this. 

Digital Assist programs overlay digital content onto your “real world” view, allowing you to pull up additional product information, maintenance guides and so on that relate exactly to what’s in front of you. An even more sophisticated version of this is “ops-end” digital support, where a remote monitoring team have their own physical copy of the product, which they can “mark up” digitally and send these to technicians out in the field. The team on the ground can then overlay these instructions onto the unit they’re working on, to guide them through the process. 

And then there are fully digital AR models. These are virtual versions of the equipment that you can explore and interact with exactly as you would do with a physical one, which makes them great for learning and training. You even see them placed in the “real world” (unlike virtual reality, where everything you do takes place in a virtual environment).

Some innovative companies use one or more of these strands so that AR becomes an embedded part of the way they operate. 

“Here at Aggreko, we have already created a fully digital model of our 1600 T4F compressor, which we’re able to roll out to teams all over the world, allowing them to train at any time - not only when they have access to a physical unit,” says Walter Davis, Head of Talent and Learning Applications at Aggreko. 

“We’re not stopping there, though; our aim is to integrate fully digital models, ops-end support and digital assist processes to create a complete through-line from training to operations and maintenance.” 

There are several good reasons for this. Firstly, it’s an incredibly engaging and effective way to deliver training, especially for younger employees entering the industry. These people are digital natives, so AR-based learning makes sense to them. Scientific research into AR training shows that involves all three parts of the brain that are vital to the learning process: the prefrontal cortex, which processes cognitive functions, the amygdala, which deals with emotional responses, and the basal ganglia, which is important for forming new behaviors and habits. When these are activated together, the brain is able to absorb and retain information far more successfully.

What’s more, any company that rents out high-value equipment will need to keep as many of their units available for customers as possible. That means they can’t have an entire resting fleet earmarked for training, especially if their teams are spread all around the world. AR models remove this logistical challenge, making in-depth possible at any time. It also means trainees can get to know the equipment inside-out, improving the quality of service they offer customers in turn.

As Walter explains, the financial benefits can be huge. “In 2018, we calculated that switching to this system would have saved us $500K in training costs, while actually improving the process. These savings and benefits can all be passed on to customers,” he says.

It’s not just technical staff that get use out of AR, though. “By extending AR-based training to R&D, we’ve been able to test virtual prototypes in detail, spotting potential problems and improvements and ironing them out before the product gets anywhere near end users. In the future, we’ll extend this to sales teams, helping them get to know the products on an even deeper level, enhancing the advice and support they provide to customers,” says Walter.

In short, AR is one of those developments that delivers benefits to everyone, on the business side, and on the customer side. It makes training and operations more streamlined. It boosts service quality and first-time fix rates. It helps bridge some of the most pressing recruitment and retention challenges, ensuring that you always have the best people on hand when you need them the most. 

In the years to come, as AR becomes embedded into more and more processes, these benefits will only continue to magnify.