Field Service Management: a glimpse of how routine technical support might be delivered tomorrow

 Feb 28, 2020

Online interventions management is a rapidly changing field just now, with the rate of change accelerating thanks to converging technologies becoming more widely available in ways that will profoundly change company structures, and as a result, the daily work of operators on the ground – whether the objective is to install, repair, maintain, inspect or simply deliver expertise. According to Field Service Management market analysts, there is little doubt that for companies to stay ahead and stand out from the rest in the domain of on-site intervention, they will have to prioritise investment in technologies to enable them to:   

  • reduce the cost and number of on-site interventions  
  • boost productivity of technicians and experts
  • improve the quality and efficiency of services delivered
  • lift the ceiling on customer satisfaction.

While optimization of intervention scheduling is a vital condition to achieving these objectives, performance and productivity of technicians and experts on the ground will also be under the spotlight, and will depend in future on how well organisations cope with integrating new technologies in their value chain, and their willingness to adopt operational systems to focus on prevention rather than cure: such systems will facilitate and refine diagnostic capability and precision, and will bring extra fluidity to the customer relationship.

Less emergency call-outs, with prevention taking centre stage… enter Io

In B2B as for B2C, managing emergencies and the daily juggling act on the part of not just the scheduling teams, but also of technicians working in the field who are finding themselves increasingly derailed as they go about their daily rounds by unplanned interventions involving itinerary changes, and very often, working long hours of overtime.  

By enabling regular communication of operating status on the part of installations and equipment, the internet of things (IoT) is now demonstrating –  notably in industry, energy and the utilities – its capacity to improve on prevention of breakdown and operating faults, and so to reduce the number of emergency or unplanned call-outs that so often upset workers’ carefully prepared schedules. Data transmitted to the maintenance company via sensors or chips embedded in machines or equipment means decision-makers can:  

  • receive alerts rapidly as soon as a dysfunction occurs
  • assess risk more accurately, and therefore…
  • calculate how urgent the call-out is, if it becomes clear it is needed.

Timely interventions can then be programmed on the basis of pertinent information rather than on a basis of ‘drop everything’ and rush to the scene, without any prior knowledge of what the problem really is. Depending on the type of company, this intervention can then be included in the schedule of the appropriate team assigned to performing «unplanned» interventions of this type, or to the technician responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the equipment concerned, or again to a technician with the required competencies and able to intervene in the appropriate timescale.  

In addition to closer adherence to maintenance contract terms and conditions generally, and lower numbers of emergency and unplanned call-outs, the way IoT is developing is extending predictive maintenance to domains where it is still only in its infancy. This is typically the case for heating and air conditioning installations in private dwellings. From boilers to radiators the new generation of equipment and installations is more connected, remotely controllable, and increasingly endowed with auto-diagnostic capability. These intelligent systems are increasing in number and popularity, and are often supplied with combined automated data analysis tools and Machine Learning capability, making it likely the whole business of machine maintenance will eventually morph into a fully automated scheduling chain. Based on relevant and accurate operational data, schedules will take into account the risks that apply for each type of installation or equipment, the breakdown cycle, the intervention times needed and the competencies required – this will in turn smoothworkload over the year and maximize the rate at which technicians’ specific competencies are correctly matched with requirements.  

More remote technical assistance and diagnostics with visio and ‘Augmented Reality’

Two generic technologies will make it possible for technical staff and experts to deliver remotely controlled interventions – whether to establish the status of a piece of equipment and diagnose the problem with the customer, or to guide a technician in real time even as the intervention is taking place…   

  • Augmented Reality (AR) superimposes technical and operating information on a fixed or mobile image, captured by a camera (customer’s smartphone or camera installed on-site) so customer support technicians can see what type of equipment or apparatus they are dealing with, when the last maintenance visit took place, the details of any intervention that took place, and which spare parts, if any, have been changed and when. For companies managing wide-scale installations with many different types of equipment, this instant identification already translates into substantial savings on time spent and considerable gains in efficiency when reporting an issue or problem. Moreover, if all the information has been integrated and the visual reconnaissance system (Computer Vision _ Machine Learning) has been deployed to detect and identify anomalies, augmented reality can guide the technician so they can make a pre-diagnosis and guide the customer in any manipulations – where possible – that could resolve the problem there and then, or if need be, establish what kind of intervention is needed and set this up. The company will in this way side-step the need for a series of visits that may only serve to arrive at the diagnosis, while increasing the resolution rate right from the first intervention, something the customer will appreciate, and result in higher levels of customer satisfaction.
  • Using visio via a telephone call – Less well-known, but easier to implement than augmented reality, this technology is indispensable in situations where «showing» is more effective than orally describing a problem. The WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) protocol enables the support technician to trigger the camera on the customer’s smartphone, without interrupting the call taking place on the voice channel. The main advantage of WebRTC is that the customer does not have to download any dedicated application to their smartphone. A simple link sent by text will suffice to activate the camera and run the video session, which takes place in parallel with the vocal communication. The technician can then ask the customer to show them the problem, the part or the equipment indicators, and give instructions as to how to reboot the equipment, or correct a particular setting. Again, if the problem cannot be resolved remotely the next intervention can be programmed there and then with the technician already in possession of the main facts of the case, and – with the added benefits any visio inspection that has taken place will provide – a diagnosis of the problem and knowledge of which spare parts are needed for the intervention to come.

In the world of insurance, this technology is used to facilitate accident declarations, and accelerate the claims procedure, or when handling burglary or flooding claims. Viewing remotely makes it easier to quickly assess the extent of the damage or confirm whether or not the customer is covered, and to what extent, and whether it is best to send an expert to the site as quickly as possible. 

Another example of how this is used, in industry this time, is Airbus using visio to facilitate exchanges and accelerate decision-taking between assembly workers building the A330 on the one hand, and their back-office experts. Instead of travelling to visit a customer, these specialists can advise a technician remotely when facing a problem.

Less call-outs with low added value   

The technologies described here – IoT, augmented reality, Vision/Voice coupling – all point to a general move towards reducing low added-value interventions. The fact of being able to better monitor equipment and installations and ascertain operating status in real time, plus the power to diagnose and fix problems remotely, notably by guiding the customer step-by-step, mechanically limits the number of call-outs and makes it possible to accurately effective intervention schedules.  

While the development of these technologies might mean more experts and technicians potentially finding themselves in a more sedentary job, this doesn’t mean that on-siteinterventions will disappear! Optimization of schedules and routes will be even more crucial, since «mobile» technicians will be both less numerous and, in some sectors, increasingly specialised.

Competencies and individual certification, availability and the time required for each type of intervention, plus travel times to these interventions will all need to be taken into account as decisive elements to enable service delivery under the best possible conditions – for staff, as well as customers.

This is exactly what GEOCONCEPT optimization solutions provide: integrated within your information system they can exploit all the relevant data to draw up realistic and cost-effective intervention schedules that add value to your human resources, and most important of all, make for happy customers!

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