Semi-virtual site visits deliver enhanced customer value

Reduced inspection costs and broader engineering support mean more efficient problem solving

By Stacey Phillips February 11, 2022
Courtesy: Swagelok Company

Onsite visits play a key role in improving the safety, performance and reliability of fluid and sampling systems. For such visits, a team of engineers tour a plant and examine systems closely to provide recommendations for addressing pressing challenges. However, it can be difficult at times to arrange such visits due to the cost of bringing an entire team onsite, as well as the additional time and effort required by facility leadership to lead the engineers through an evaluation. That is why a semi-virtual alternative to a traditional onsite visit offers great promise for the future.

Some field service providers have started using augmented reality (AR) technology to virtually bring engineers into a facility. Using an AR system, a large team can be pared down to one lead engineer being onsite wearing an AR collaboration headset (see Figure 1). That person feeds real-time video to a team of engineers around the world, allowing them to see live shots of tests being performed, such as checking the gaps on fittings or using a soap solution to check for leaks. The onsite engineer can hear colleagues’ voices through the earpiece, allowing the team to be a part of the evaluation and provide support in identifying areas of concern throughout the facility.

Figure 1: Augmented reality (AR) technology can bring in remote specialists from around the world to address facility concerns.

Figure 1: Augmented reality (AR) technology can bring in remote specialists from around the world to address facility concerns. Courtesy: Swagelok Company

Though different from a typical onsite evaluation, a semi-virtual visit still allows a broad team of engineers with specialized skills to help solve pressing system challenges. It also can provide access to top professionals who might not have been able to visit in person, but who can join a virtual visit more easily.

If a field engineering team is unable to visit a location to help with fluid system troubleshooting, sampling system design or other matters, a semi-virtual visit may be a good option. It is ideal to have one or two field engineers visit a facility to conduct an evaluation while supported by a remote, digitally connected team (see Figure 2). If that is not possible, however, some component suppliers may be able to provide a team with an AR system, so someone can stream their own video and troubleshoot with the remote team in real time.

Figure 2: While onsite visits often require four or more engineers, the use of AR technology means inspection teams can be reduced to one or two people.

Figure 2: While onsite visits often require four or more engineers, the use of AR technology means inspection teams can be reduced to one or two people. Courtesy: Swagelok Company

Regardless of how the new virtual connectivity technology is deployed, it can minimize the amount of time fluid and sampling system issues go undiagnosed or unaddressed while typically lowering travel-related costs and coordination time.

Allowing personnel access

Improved AR technology has been helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic because it allows a single engineer, virtually backed by the support of a full team, to perform onsite visits without the potentially problematic in person attendance.

Semi-virtual visits can broaden troubleshooting capabilities and improve the availability of evaluations. By being able to access experts from around the globe in many different time zones, it may be easier to receive guidance at a time that is more convenient for a facility (see Figure 3). It allows field engineers to share knowledge and experiences as well as maintain consistency and quality in the services provided.

Figure 3: Using AR headsets attached to safety helmets, field engineers can livestream their view to colleagues around the globe, enhancing the team’s ability to troubleshoot solutions.

Figure 3: Using AR headsets attached to safety helmets, field engineers can livestream their view to colleagues around the globe, enhancing the team’s ability to troubleshoot solutions. Courtesy: Swagelok Company

AR technology offers opportunities to schedule visits that have been difficult to arrange in the past due to sites being in remote locations, offshore environments or other restricted areas. Headset technology allows field engineers to reach someone where they are and streamline the visit process. As a result, someone can receive insights in real time because remote engineers can see what is happening onsite versus trying to identify issues through messages or images (see Figure 4). Problems can be solved more quickly, which saves time and money in the process.

Figure 4: Performing a gap inspection of fittings to make sure they are properly tightened is one regular activity done in person that can be improved with the use of virtual technology.

Figure 4: Performing a gap inspection of fittings to make sure they are properly tightened is one regular activity done in person that can be improved with the use of virtual technology. Courtesy: Swagelok Company

Benefits of the virtual

Though the pandemic accelerated the rollout of virtual visits, it has long been in consideration among field engineering teams. The ability to collaborate, synthesize and record information in real time means there is a better chance that nothing will be missed (see Figure 5). Semi-virtual visits offer field engineers more thorough opportunities to document what they see, which can help them create the most effective solutions for someone without having to recreate the visit from memory (see Figure 6).

Figure 5: With an entire team seeing problems in real time, semi-virtual site visits allow the engineer onsite to solve a wider range of challenges than would normally be possible.

Figure 5: With an entire team seeing problems in real time, semi-virtual site visits allow the engineer onsite to solve a wider range of challenges than would normally be possible. Courtesy: Swagelok Company

Figure 6: Evaluating sites virtually provides opportunities for more thorough documentation than can be done in onsite visits.

Figure 6: Evaluating sites virtually provides opportunities for more thorough documentation than can be done in onsite visits. Courtesy: Swagelok Company

In situations where space is limited like analyzer shelters, the ability to use AR technology prevents having to cycle specialists in and out and allows all the specialists to see the same information at once. Semi-virtual visits give companies better opportunities to match specific experts more quickly and brainstorm more creative solutions in real time. This quick turnaround means people can solve problems faster before they cost significant time and money to correct. Semi-virtual visits often can lead to same-day recommendations to improve fluid or sampling systems because of the levels of collaboration the virtual headsets enable.

Additional applications to virtual visits

Virtual collaboration technology can be used for other purposes in addition to onsite visits, including:

  • Virtual commissioning of fluid systems and advising on the construction and testing of analytical equipment. Virtual headsets allow experts to be “present” to provide oversight during key stages in the fluid system implementation process, helping avoid errors and integrate longer-lasting assemblies. Executives at a company can even join virtually to experience processes they would not usually be able to witness.
  • Virtual witnessing of key procurement processes. Compliance teams can offer the opportunity to witness manufacturing and shipping practices that would usually require an onsite visit to a manufacturer’s facilities to see.
  • Virtual customer visits to manufacturing and fulfillment centers. Corporate customer visit teams are rolling out a new way to meet people and see the processes behind the products and services people are purchasing, allowing someone to take a tour of facilities with an onsite tour guide.

Hosting virtual facility tours alongside relevant business meetings means manufacturers can provide the full experience of visiting company headquarters without requiring a full trip. The new technology allows manufacturers to reach more people at once. Virtual visits will help companies stay connected with others during the COVID-19 pandemic, but these programs will continue providing value well into the future.

An increased focus on customer service, as well as continuous improvement initiatives, will drive more companies to invest in virtual technology that will allow them to make semi-virtual and virtual visits an essential experience. AR technology will continue to proliferate as more people see the increased value of having more intelligence from around the world working on solving problems in real time.

Fast facts

  • According to Wikipedia, augmented reality is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information, sometimes across multiple sensory modalities, including visual, auditory, haptic, somatosensory and olfactory.
  • In an article published by VentureBeat, Louis Rosenberg, CEO and Chief scientist at Unanimous AI, said the following: “This is why the metaverse, when broadly adopted, will be an augmented reality environment accessed through see-through lenses. This will hold true even though full virtual reality hardware will offer significantly higher fidelity. The fact is visual fidelity is not the factor that will govern wide adoption. Instead, adoption will be governed by which technology offers the most natural experience to our perceptual system. And the most natural way to present digital content to the human perceptual system is by integrating it directly into our physical surroundings.”
  • According to a December article in Pharmaceutical Technology magazine, an article by Nat Schaefer on macroeconomic trends related to augmented reality, read as follows:
  • The dearth of augmented reality content is one of the biggest obstacles to the mass adoption of AR platforms. AR is currently restricted to basic photo filters, virtual try-on, and indoor furniture placement applications. A longstanding factor holding back the development of AR content is broadband infrastructure. More AR content and use cases will emerge as 5G telecom networks are rolled out worldwide.

Author Bio: Stacey Phillips is the field engineering regional area manager for the Americas at the Swagelok Company.