Augmented reality (AR) holds tremendous potential to transform field service operations, training, and other functions. Yet so far adoption rates have been relatively low, with most companies closer to the starting line than the finish line. The technology itself isn’t the issue; it’s relatively straightforward and widely available.
Rather, the biggest limiting factor is content, in two categories. The first is the actual schematics, CAD drawings, and other raw materials that need to be digitized and virtualized to power AR applications. The second category of content are the processes on that equipment - i.e., the specific sequence of steps required to execute a particular procedure. Until companies take on this content challenge, they won’t capture the true potential of AR.
The process won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean companies have to sit on the sidelines. We have identified three specific steps to help companies start their AR journey.
Wide-Ranging Applications - and Benefits
AR technology overlays virtual information - such as images, videos, or processes - on top of physical objects in the real world, and delivers that combination to users via wearables or basic mobile platforms like phones and tablets. (In virtual reality, by contrast, everything is digitized, with no real-world baseline.)
The range of potential applications is huge. A field technician on a job site can call up a specific procedure, down to individual steps such as a virtual screwdriver seating itself on the correct screw and rotating in the correct direction. By putting such information into technicians’ hands, first-time-fix rates dramatically increase, and health and safety on job sites improve as well. Companies can also improve the productivity of repair techs. Senior experts could work at a command center and support multiple junior technicians in the field (rather than having to travel and support them for individual jobs.)
More accurate diagnostics and repairs would largely eliminate the current practice of replacing entire components and modules en masse, reducing inventory and replacement-part costs. And by documenting processes, AR technology can help companies certify that jobs were done correctly, and meet compliance requirements where applicable.
The range of applications in training is even broader, given that most companies have some kind of learning and development program in place. Hyper-realistic simulations can make training more effective and convenient, at lower cost than building physical environments. The potential value in health care is even larger, with surgeons, nurses, and clinicians all able to learn more effectively and with lower risk to patients.
Content is Holding Companies Back
The biggest hurdle to greater adoption of AR is content. Generating fully digitized, AR scenarios requires digital renderings of the components under consideration. Consider an AR module that covers a turbine repair job. That module can only come together if a company has a digital rendering of the turbine itself. Some organizations have CAD drawings of the components they work with (in which case converting them to AR-compatible formats is relatively straightforward), but in a surprising number of cases, the CAD files aren’t available or accessible. Commonly, a company has outsourced manufacturing, and the contract OEM still holds the CAD files.
In the absence of CAD files, companies need to conduct laser scans to generate digital versions - a process that involves breaking down a piece of equipment into its constituent components, scanning each component, and then reassembling the unit.
In addition to virtual renderings of components, companies also have to create the content that shows how specific procedures are executed. That entails converting technical documents and repair manuals into an AR format - the sequence steps in a process. Critically, it also requires capturing the less formal “tribal knowledge” that often supersedes manuals - the hard-won experience of senior technicians who understand how a process actually happens, rather than how it’s officially supposed to happen. Aggregating and developing all of this content is a huge, time-intensive, messy process, which is which many organizations haven’t yet seen any real gains from AR.
Opting out isn’t a long-term solution. The potential benefits from AR are significant enough that leading companies need to start solving some of these challenges. How to start? We believe that organizations should follow a three-step sequence.
1. Set the content issue aside.
An entry-level version of AR doesn’t require any digital content. Instead, it’s akin to an enhanced video link that uses object-detection software to enable new features. Consider a junior technician on a job site, video-chatting with a remote SME. The junior person holds a camera phone up to show the piece of equipment being working on. Using that image, the senior SME can annotate the image - for example, drawing a circle around a specific bolt. The software anchors that circle to the bolt so that even when the phone is moved, or set down and picked up again, the circle will always return to the correct bolt in the image.
This is an initial step that can get people used to working in this way and trigger the organizational changes required for AR - for example, reallocating senior resources to a central support unit, rather than sending them out in to the field. The COVID-19 pandemic has made software like this critical in helping companies ensure uptime and business continuity despite travel constraints.
2. Start with a single product.
In parallel with implementing the baseline version of AR, companies can begin to gather the digital content needed to support a more robust version for a single product (or product line). To generate faster progress, organizations should focus on the product where the content is most readily available. It could even be something currently in development and hitting the market soon, where the company can still secure CAD drawings. By breaking the content challenge into chunks and tackling the easier jobs first, companies can build up critical expertise not just in gathering component renderings but also developing the virtual processes and other digital tools to support AR more broadly. And it can get technicians accustomed to working in new ways.
3. Develop a company-wide content strategy.
Last, as companies begin to apply AR across a single product or line, they can broaden their reach in terms of content, ultimately covering the entire portfolio of products and services with a comprehensive content strategy. The strategy should be both backward- and forward-looking. The first aspect includes gathering all documentation and files (digital and otherwise) on existing products - essentially getting the company “caught up” across its portfolio. Forward-looking aspects include ensuring that the company captures relevant content for product upgrades and new products in development as they go into service. The company also needs to establish standards for content, house it in a central location, and ensure that it is accessible and in the correct format to support AR.
In sum, AR is evolving from the realm of science fiction to everyday reality, but it won’t deliver real business value until companies have the content to support it. That may be disappointing to some, yet it’s a consistent lesson of technology: you can’t simply flip a switch and capture benefits. By taking action today, companies can begin to address the content challenge, building up key AR capabilities and positioning themselves to capitalize on the technology over the long term.