Virtual gets real for utilities
Over the last five years or so, we’ve seen Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) starting to move from the margins to the mainstream. Five years ago it was seen as a novelty with promise. Now, our utility clients are taking a more rigorous analytical approach.
For the moment, you are still more likely to see a suited executive in AR glasses moving in some private ballet at a trade fair than you are to see a field-service engineer with a heads-up display, but this is set to change.
The business case for AR and VR
Without understating the pure excitement people feel when playing with these technologies, it’s time to get serious.
In discussions with utility clients, the logic for adoption soon becomes clear, and we have established four classes for application which seem to resonate well with business and operational decision-makers.
- Field engineering
Firstly, think about how AR/VR can benefit engineers on site or in the field. There’s a particular interest for water companies where assets can cover thousands of hectares, often in remote and hostile environments. Just getting an engineer to the site or problem can itself be challenging. Once on site, the analysis and intervention may need to be carried out in wind and rain, usually wearing gloves. Just to make life more interesting, buried or concealed pipes may be undocumented.
For field service use, we think about how AR/VR can deliver contextual documentation on-demand and even more importantly, show virtually what in reality may be hidden behind meters of earth or concrete. In these cases AR/VR makes a direct contribution, not just to the efficiency of the service team, but also to reducing risk and cost.
- Assisted reality and remote experts
Expertise is always at a premium, but you cannot always anticipate the requisite expertise when allocating an engineer to a job. Although not strictly AR/VR, the ability to give the on-site engineer remote access to specialized skills can be invaluable. Sharing an augmented reality visualization with a remote expert, takes step-by-step guidance to a whole new level.
The business incentive is clear. It allows the utility to capitalize on expertise, improving the quality of field service performance while minimizing the logistic problems and cost of sending specialists.
- Technical training
Whether welcoming new recruits or keeping service teams up-to-date, technical training is an essential activity for every utility. Until now, for most utilities, much training was inevitably on-the-job: it’s just not feasible to put a turbine in the classroom.
While AR and VR are no substitute for hands-on training, they can, however, provide an essential shortcut to gaining skills. Time spent with simulation and immersive VR minimizes the risk of error and speeds the acquisition of not just understanding, but even muscle memory. And for the utility, with AR and VR, training can take place where and when it’s needed – not just in the classroom.
- Public relations and education
Utility company customers, thankfully, are keen to use resources responsibly: the environment is a shared concern. AR/VR can play a valuable role in helping utility companies ensure their customers gain a real understanding of the service and industry. It can be especially useful in demonstrating new investments in infrastructure, giving customers an inside view of the scale and cost of major engineering programs. This in turn helps customers gain a clear understanding of what they are actually paying for.
For many years, for example, nuclear power stations have invested in visitor centers. With AR/VR it’s possible to take established education practices much further: the visitor center, with a remote guide, can be taken right into the school classroom, teaching the next generation how their water and power supplies work – and what they can do to use them responsibly. By taking the world of utilities into the classroom with AR/VR, we can also inspire a new generation to think about possible career choices in the sector.
Creating the business case for AR/VR
All this sounds great – and the business logic is clear. If AR/VR is going to make field engineers more effective, help share expertise across widely distributed operations, accelerate training and educate customers, what’s not to like?
Everything, however, must be paid for. Every utility company is acutely aware of the massive cost of maintaining and modernizing the infrastructure whether water or power. For power, budget pressures are further increased by the need to adopt new decentralized models which embrace local renewables.
Under these pressures, does AR/VR become a “nice to have – but not now”?
The good news, is that with the right approach, introducing AR/VR into mainstream operations can be embedded within existing digital transformation initiatives. When, for example, drones are already being used to capture detailed site images, it is relatively straightforward to rapidly and cost-effectively adopt these for AR/VR use.
Similarly, when many utilities are already adopting cloud-based architectures as a means of optimizing mobile application access, the working essentials for AR/VR are already in place.
A new generation
Finally, let’s consider AR/VR and the next generation. Many utilities today have an aging workforce and struggle to attract the best of a new generation of engineers.
What can utilities do to attract young people who have grown up with digital? Utilities are not video games or social media sites – but that doesn’t mean that you cannot benefit from those technologies and practices in your own operations, starting right now.
This blog is part of the Atos Look Out 2020+ Utilities “From commodities to high-value service providers” where we explore the business opportunities and key technologies which will shape the future of Utilities.
Join us at the European Utility Week #EUW 2018 where we are showcasing solutions central to the new digital landscape for forward-thinking utilities.