Comment: How engineers can leverage mixed reality technology to reduce machine downtime

3 min read

Mixed reality technology can provide a welcome solution to productivity issues presented by machine downtime, writes Yan Simard, CEO, Kognitiv Spark

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Machine downtime brings a heavy cost. Senseye found that Fortune Global 500 manufacturing and industrial firms are taking a near $1 trillion a year financial hit because of unplanned downtime. Among the biggest problems with downtime in an industrial context is that it directly impacts productivity. If the company is primarily focused on production, every time there is downtime, that output is negatively impacted.

It’s a serious problem across almost every industrial production and engineering sector, including energy or advanced manufacturing, where outages have higher stakes. It is even a major issue in areas like commodity products manufacturing, where the focus is more on production volumes rather than margin. Whenever a business like this suffers an hour of downtime, losses can potentially run into the millions. 

The people perspective

Financially therefore, reducing downtime is an attractive operational goal for most industrial companies, but cutting the volume and length of outages also has huge benefits for human resource. For production engineers and other workers on the factory floor, any downtime is highly stressful, especially if the problem is difficult to solve. Downtime can frequently negatively impact morale and productivity.

However, humans can also be an important part of the solution. Technology can empower engineers both to proactively monitor systems and solutions to ensure they remain up and running, and also to quickly remediate the situation by rapidly addressing downtime and fixing outages as soon as possible.

Whenever there are complex, troubleshooting scenarios of this type, the challenge is to bring to the on-site engineer all the information and expertise required to enable them to deal with the situation quickly and efficiently. That’s where technology can have a key role to play, helping to augment the cognitive capabilities of an engineer and support them in delivering in complex situations and dynamic environments. Mixed reality-based worker support, in which physical reality and digital content combine to enable interaction with real-world and virtual objects, can be helpful in many situations.

This approach allows engineers to establish a secure video and audio call with experienced industry experts when they need assistance. The expert, who can be located anywhere, can see what the remote worker sees and use holographic assets to support the task, all while keeping the user heads-up and hands-free.

It is a major advantage to be able use a head-mounted tool while simultaneously consuming knowledge from a remotely-located expert, and is a key benefit of mixed reality. The second is that the brain naturally works well with visual information, with technology able to facilitate this. Engineers can then consume and act on it straightaway, thereby shortening both time-to-action and time-to-insight.

Beyond that, the technology also helps with retention. If an engineer consumes knowledge through 3D visual representations at the same time as they are doing the work, they retain it better. Many experts concur learning by doing is better than learning by watching – not least for cognitive retention.

Working across multiple sectors

So what examples do we see where a mixed reality approach has been used to fix a downtime problem? We had one customer who wanted to rectify a problem with a bagging system installation which had gone wrong, resulting in downtime. To address the problem, the customer ran a mixed reality session and connected up with a remotely-based expert, who almost instantly identified the source of the issue.

The reason for the fast diagnosis was an unusual noise emanating from one part of the equipment. From past experience, the expert immediately identified what needed to be done. Within minutes, the business was up and running again.

Another example we saw was where a nuclear plant in Canada experienced a downtime situation with a steam turbine. The steam turbine had been produced in the US but the experts were once again unable to travel because of Covid. Through the use of mixed reality technology, workers at the plant were able to access the help of experts remotely, saving days of downtime and achieving millions of dollars of savings as a result.    

Rapidly-growing awareness

Today, there is a fast-growing understanding of the benefits of mixed reality solutions in scenarios where there is downtime or potential downtime. Some companies are still challenged around how best to operationalise it and which types of applications to use to get their engineers on board.

Yet, such are the compelling benefits that mixed reality tools can bring that it seems likely that the technology will become key to solving the downtime problem for businesses and the right starting point for rolling out industrial mixed reality more widely across the enterprise.

As the technology evolves into devices it will become better performing but also smaller and more comfortable. Usage will increase beyond critical troubleshooting situations and support normal operations. Engineers may use the technology two or three times a day for routine maintenance operations, and in the future, it is likely to be part of the day-to-day work in plants.

Mixed reality is a way to present information that is available in the IT ecosystem of a company and make that available to the engineer when they need it in a format that they can consume. Remediating downtime will remain a critical function of the technology but such are the manifest benefits of the technology that its role is only likely to grow.

Yan Simard, CEO, Kognitiv Spark