Augmented reality to boost field services

When augmented reality (AR) is mentioned, people often think of the Iron Man movies, or the popular mobile video game Pokemon Go. But AR has long moved beyond Hollywood and gaming into everyday, practical applications. The COVID-19 outbreak and the experience of lockdown have shed new light on digital solutions that facilitate remote working; AR has proven to be a valuable asset in that aspect while ensuring operational resilience and reducing operational costs.

Augmented reality has been around for decades, having been developed at Harvard in 1968, but the technologies required to unleash its potential have only become available in the past few years. These technologies are used to transform volumes of data and analytics into images, text or sounds that are then overlaid onto the physical world around us. 

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), worldwide spending on augmented and virtual reality is forecast to accelerate out of the pandemic, growing from just over $12.0 billion in 2020 to $72.8 billion in 2024. On the commercial side, the largest investments are expected to be made in training and industrial maintenance — two applications that Veolia Water Technologies has already successfully integrated into its digital offering.

Innovation propels experts into the field… from their desk

In 2018, Veolia Water Technologies Canada was contracted by dairy producer Lactalis (Parmalat) to design and supply a complete wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) for its factory in Winchester, Ontario. As part of an extensive service coverage plan, the contract included the digital solution Hubgrade, and its services Essential and Assist. 

When time came to commission the plant, the COVID-19 pandemic had started and some suppliers couldn’t travel to Canada to perform the required operations. Lactalis was facing compliance issues and strong social pressure to start up its WWTP and treat sludge in a timely manner. The main challenge was the start-up of a centrifuge, which supplier Andritz had never yet done remotely. 

One of the digital tools available as an Hubgrade Assist feature is an augmented reality platform, which provides remote assistance for construction commissioning, troubleshooting, maintenance services, and emergency support. Martin Caspar, director of technical services for Veolia Water Technologies in Canada, explained: “Following extensive negotiations related to the process and contractual risks mitigation between our customer, our supplier and us, we made the decision to rely on our digital tools to start the sludge treatment.” 

Despite the difficulties faced, the team was able to successfully start and optimize the equipment in less than one week. “Our customer, who was deeply involved in the process, was able to meet his treatment objectives and was very satisfied. Our digital tools allowed us to innovate and exceed customer expectations,” continued Caspar. The customer agreed, with Anthony Leneveu, corporate environment technical manager for Lactalis Canada stating: ”In the midst of the pandemic, the strong collaboration between our teams and Veolia's teams has made it possible, thanks to new digital tools, to start-up complex equipment remotely, and achieve the expected performance in record time."

Based in Jordan but virtually in Germany

Another customer to benefit from the use of AR during the COVID-19 pandemic was Nestle, when the food and beverage giant required a factory acceptance test (FAT) done in Germany for a factory in Jordan. With global travel being extremely limited, an alternative solution needed to be found.

The Hubgrade team again used AR, which let the user see the real-life environment with a digital augmentation overlay. In this case, the German team was able to virtually present all the pre-assembled equipment to the customer in Jordan, the UAE and France. This means, without actually being there, the customer could still speak to the experts, thoroughly check the equipment and get answers to a wide range of situations. 

The full inspection was carried out live and the FAT approved in under two hours, instead of a three-day business trip. The equipment was then shipped, avoiding any possible delay in commissioning and production of the process water treatment plant.

AR is also used to create a library of step-by-step instructions on how to troubleshoot equipment and process issues. The ability to collaborate with experts in real-time via smart glasses, smartphones, mobile devices and web browsers has helped in training employees and customers, and enables virtual visits for inspections or visual verification of equipment and network layouts.

Resolving issues via AR remote assistance also increases safety due to the hands-free nature of the smart glasses. The need for bringing in technicians from around the world to service remote locations is reduced, which helps businesses realize substantial savings.

Immediate intervention in Brazil, from Europe

When a large power facility in Brazil needed immediate intervention to assist in repositioning, parametring and troubleshooting the reverse osmosis (RO) units within its water desalination plant, once again, augmented reality was used through Hubgrade. The customer was provided real-time access to Veolia experts and was able to re-start the RO plant with the correct operational envelope, successfully overcoming this operational issue with reliable remote assistance, in a timely and cost-effective manner. 

AR has proven to be extremely useful in assisting with commissioning, troubleshooting, maintenance services and emergency support during a time when travel, even for short distances, was strongly hindered. It has provided options to safely maintain services and honor commitments to customers.