As field service technicians are asked to fix increasingly complex problems, they have to draw much more frequently on external resources in order to successfully resolve those issues.
IFS Labs, the innovation arm of IFS R&D, and Zebra Technologies, a leader in solutions that intelligently connect people, assets and data, are engaging in a strategic partnership. The goal of the innovation project is to explore how best to help remote field service technicians more easily query external information sources and access expert peer advice through head-mounted devices (HMD). While Zebra will sell the new HD4000 head-mounted device, strategic software partners play a critical role in filling out the portfolio for HMD-based solutions. IFS is one such partner and a recognized leader in this field. As part of this relationship, Zebra is also validating IFS software on the most commonly used Zebra ruggedized devices.
The Benefits of Head-Mounted Displays
Most field service technicians working remotely today tend to rely on their mobile device to access online data and to consult with desk-based peers. This can be a tricky proposition if they’re trying to work on the problem with their hands while simultaneously balancing a mobile device or several devices so that they can collaborate with their colleagues back at the office and share what they’re finding at the customer site.
The ideal scenario for field service technicians is hands-free access to mobile applications. Although conventional smart glasses could meet that need, the glasses worn on the face can also prove problematic when required to be used for long periods of time, for instance, throughout an employee’s shift, or when the devices are shared among several users over the course of a working day. As organizations look to experiment with technologies like augmented reality, it’s important that they bear in mind the weight of any additional hardware which a technician might have to wear in order to take advantage of those technologies.
Taking a Use Case-First Approach
Zebra first approached IFS both for input on the work Zebra has been doing on head-mounted displays and also to work together on a potential combined hardware and software solution. “We were looking for leaders outside of our domain to collaborate with, and, for FSM (field service management), IFS was an obvious candidate,” said James Pemberton, director, global ISV and developer strategy at Zebra Technologies.
“We took a radically different approach to other ‘smart glasses’ vendors,” Pemberton said. “We’re not coming from the consumer side, we’re starting from the enterprise use case.” Zebra provides a tethered accessory to the field service technician’s existing mobile computer. So, the technicians can wear their mobile devices on their wrists or on their waistbands, and they are hooked up to a Head-mounted Display – effectively a second display attached to safety glasses. Utilizing a second display provides the ability for the workflow to determine which data to have appear on that display, so it may be specific to the particular field service engagement or task.
One key focus for IFS Labs as a new technology incubator is augmented reality for maintenance and service. “Our responsibility is to learn and experiment with new hardware, so we’re ready with the software when the hardware hits the mainstream,” said Bas de Vos, director of IFS Labs. In investigating how Zebra’s hardware may work with the IFS ecosystem, IFS Labs is able to determine how it needs to develop its mobile applications for head-mounted devices.
The Fruits of Collaboration Between IFS and Zebra Technologies
As de Vos describes it, working on this project with Zebra raises interesting questions to resolve, for instance, what type of information to pull from an IFS FSM mobile app to show to the field service technician via the head-mounted display. Then, there’s the question about how technicians will want to control that display, will it be through a control panel on their arm, via a clicker, or through voice input. Another factor to consider is how the head-mounted display will function in different lighting environment, for instance, how it will perform under the glare of the sun, if technicians are working outdoors.
Customer interest in remote collaboration is high given the aging population of experienced field service technicians and the difficulty many organizations encounter in finding the number of engineers needed to support their customers. “When we look at our service management roadmap, we’re looking for how we can add value in a very tangible manner,” said Stephen Jeffs-Watts, senior advisor for service management at IFS. “It’s a balance of what can we do more near term versus a five-year endpoint.”
The typical use of the smartphone in field service is as “a dumb data capture device,” according to Jeffs-Watts, with the focus on transaction processing. “What technicians really want to do is to exploit the power and capability of the device, so it becomes the heart of the ecosystem which they rely on all day,” he said. “Going forward, the goal is to make technicians as productive as possible, which will involve them using their phones to directly communicate with assets. As they use their phones more, head-mounted displays, leaving hands free to work on equipment problems, become increasingly attractive.”
“We see this partnership with Zebra as the starting point for creating an ecosystem for field technicians,” Jeffs-Watts said. “Our goal is to democratize field service as much as possible.” Empowering technicians with easier access to external resources will help IFS FSM customers more successfully disseminate knowledge across their workforce and facilitate collaboration between office-bound and remote workers.
The next stage of the IFS and Zebra partnership, according to de Vos, will be to start involving IFS customers in the evaluation of the proposed hardware and software combination in which the two companies are engaged.
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