Utilities have started their digital transformation journey and are at different maturity levels. But fieldwork safety still remains the core problem statement impacting their brand value. This is a key deterrent in attracting new talent to replace the aging workforce of the utilities. We have seen how maintenance operation has changed in the last decade, from paper-based to mobile-based automated data entry to core enterprise systems. It has considerably taken off the earlier manual load of entering job details in enterprise systems. But we are yet to see improvement in worker safety while performing the operations on the ground.
The next wave of digital transformation in field operations is the need of the hour. Immersive technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) have reached a level where they can be leveraged for production use-case. For the understanding of all, augmented reality/virtual reality blurs the line of digital and physical worlds and allows users to simulate any space around them in an office-like environment. Augmented reality uses the existing real-world environment and puts virtual information on top of it to enhance the experience. In contrast, virtual reality immerses users, allowing them to "inhabit" an entirely different environment altogether, notably a virtual one created and rendered by computers.
Adoption of both technologies has gained massive demand and popularity across industries such as healthcare, gaming, entertainment, marketing, e-commerce, and retail, etc. A recent research states that between 2019 and 2026, both the augmented reality and virtual reality market will increase at 38.4% CAGR with a market value of more than $170+ billion. Utilities have been slow to use these technologies, but there are few pain areas where AR/VR can help improve their safety compliance and attract new talent:
- Hands-free, voice-guided inspection – A technician working on the distribution pole needing some asset information of the capacitor bank installed can simply pass a voice command. Those details will come on his smart glass. This way, he can perform his job with efficiency and less manual intervention without worrying about doing multiple things at the same time.
- SME support from operations center – Many times, a technician reaches the location to carry out the work and finds that he lacks knowledge in fixing the issue. He cancels the job, and another technician with a relevant skill set is assigned the work. This results in more OPEX costs and sometimes also reduces the customer satisfaction score if it is related to customer jobs. AR/VR can help the technician take live help from the SME sitting back in the office by showing the exact problem and overlay diagrams.
- Virtual training – Utilities have failed to attract new talent due to their nature of work/worker safety. These new gadgets can help them attract millennials. Virtual training can be provided in the comfort of the corporate office by virtually simulating the power plant or substation environment using VR. New joiner does not have to visit the substation to understand the details. He can take a virtual tour of the substation using a VR gadget.
It might look very simple to start building in this direction. But it requires expert consulting services on many aspects like integration with multiple systems and selection of hardware devices (many products are available in the market) etc. HCL has curated an AR/VR Assisted Remote Field Services solution with our domain and technology SMEs to provide consulting, implementation, and integration services to transform the way utilities address their workers' safety challenges. Augmented Reality solution will provide a digital overlay on the physical assets, with guidance from digital instructions, delivered through a mobile device or a smart glass. The solution will empower the field service technician with relevant content and hands-on training modules to perform field services with utmost quality, thereby improving the first-time fix rate and optimizing service cost.
The benefits of these offerings are not only limited to the safety of workers. We have also seen the benefits mentioned below for utilities:
- Cost optimization: Reduction in field services costs by up to 40%
- Workforce utilization: Lesser workforce required with improved utilization
- Operations improvement: High first-time fix rate, reduced mean time to repair, and improved efficiency of service operations. Improvement in quality of tasks and reduced downtimes
- Capabilities enhancement: Reduction in training cost due to hands-on virtual training, with improved retention and access to knowledge repository during field services
While still at an early stage, these scenarios are just the beginning of what is to come. In the future, immersive technology will lead the way in the digital transformation of utilities and help them to become intelligent enterprises.