It’s very early days for augmented reality at global energy management specialist Schneider Electric, but the appetite and ambition for the technology are already huge.

When the idea of augmented reality (AR) was first pitched a couple of Schneider executives, including the CMO, in October 2015, “both of them lit up immediately,” says Mark Minnucci, systems engineering manager at Schneider Electric. “We followed with a demonstration to the entire executive level and board of directors. Instantly, it was clear that this was a game-changing technology, especially in the area of service.”

Schneider’s research and development unit quickly zoomed in on augmented reality’s application in three specific areas: First, it is looking at whether AR can improve the speed and accuracy of maintenance. Second, whether AR can be used to train new technicians quickly on complex products that may have been highly customized.

The third application is to examine how AR can be applied to improving the safety of both Schneider service engineers and customers — a priority for a company that handles the electricity power supply.

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Complementing a Connected Service Strategy

This interest in AR is part of an internal initiative, Information Process Organization (IPO) 2020, to create a business that uses “connected and connectable” products. The aim is to create a continuous loop of data between customer’ assets and Schneider’s marketing, sales, service, product design, and back-end systems. The initiative is powered by ServiceMax’s Connected Field Service offering, which leverages the PTC ThingWorx IoT platform.

Out in the field, strapped to a service tech, is where the AR component shows particular promise.

“When our technicians go out to the site, before they even have to open up a device, using the augmented reality capabilities, they can see inside of the devices,” says Twila Osborn, vice president for R&D and innovation efficiency for Schneider’s IPO 2020 initiative. “They can understand what products are in there, they can understand when it needs to be serviced and the asset itself will have created its own service request, so they know exactly what they are bringing out to the site.”

Toward an Everyday AR Reality

The plan over the coming year is to dig deeper into how AR could be applied to field service and talk directly to technicians about their specific requirements. Minnucci expects several field service AR pilots to be set up across the company within the next year.

One particular aspect of AR that Schneider is exploring is how to exploit the potential of digital twins.

Instantly, it was clear that [augmented reality] was a game-changing technology, especially in the area of service. — Mark Minnucci, Schneider Electric

A digital twin is a 3D representation of a real-world device. But rather than just a static copy, a digital twin feeds live, real-time information about the actual physical product, which can be overlaid on top of the digital image.

“Digital twin technology is something that’s very relevant to us,” Osborn says. “We’re working on some of the new things we can do with the digital twin concept.”

A typical application for digital twins within Schneider would be to check the heat on a device.

Osborn explains: “Many times you can’t tell if a device is overheating, but if you’re taking information from the asset, you can do a heat map and put that data right back into a virtual or digital environment … and then someone like a CAE [computer-aided engineering] expert can look at that and understand what’s going on there.”

An Adoption Dark Horse

Digital twins and other AR-enabled benefits are exciting, but Minnucci believes sales — not field service — will pick up on AR’s potential faster, using it to show potential customers simulations of how Schneider products will work and interact with existing products.

“Honestly, I believe the sales and marketing team might adopt this far faster than the technicians,” says Minnucci. “The power of taking this on a sales call and not showing a catalogue on paper, but actually showing a product in the customer environment — this is something I think you’ll see in one year on sales calls.”

But no matter which division strikes first, Minnucci says adopting AR is not an option, but rather the reality of market forces.

“We have make sure we are ahead of what the customer needs, so that by the time the customer needs it, we’re already there delivering that capability for them.”

ABOUT Janine Milne

Avatar photoJanine Milne has been writing about HR, technology and business for more than 20 years, both as a freelancer and as an in-house editor.