If you believe the experts, our world is on the verge of an artificial intelligence (AI) revolution that will change the way we live and work. Rather than replace the human mind, AI has the potential to “scale” it, increasing our ability to tackle difficult problems in fields ranging from medicine to climate change to cybersecurity. Global revenue from AI software sales is expected to grow from $9.5 billion in 2018 to $118.6 billion by 2025.

Of course, it’s natural to wonder how this revolution will impact the field service industry—if it hasn’t already.

“There are certainly some early adopters, but many organizations don’t want to just jump on technology because there’s hype around it. They have a good head on their shoulders and want to make sure they’ll get a return on their investment before they make a decision,” says Katharina Streater, senior product marketing manager at ServiceMax.

Though for now organizations may just be dipping their toes, the impact is already shaking up the way they provide service to customers.

Stopping the Shrink

One key area where AI could be a big help is reducing shrinkage of parts and products. “This is a real problem for many field service companies because they’ll know their warehouse inventory, but in the journey from the warehouse to the truck to the customer, parts are lost,” Streater says.

Data processed by an AI-enhanced inventory system can effectively watch over parts as they’re checked out for use by first establishing a baseline of existing parts, and then pinpointing any outliers by keeping track of how parts are used. “If the system detects an unusual amount of parts used, it notifies service leaders who seems to be using them most, and they can check on why that is,” Streater says.

Another area where AI is already making a big impact is in scheduling. “Modern scheduling programs are very good already with their ability to find technicians in the field and route them to a new job that’s nearby,” says Andy Starkey, a lecturer at the School of Engineering at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. “[We’re already seeing] a capability to match the skill level of the technician with the job, so someone who did one type of repair in an hour, as opposed to the two hours it took others, might be scheduled for similar jobs.”

Diagnostics and Preventative Repair

Diagnostics is another area where AI is poised to have a significant impact. An AI system can interact with a customer via phone or online through a new concept called Remote Triage, which ServiceMax developed with partner Acquant.io, arming technicians with information about the problem at hand in advance. “Before the technician gets onsite, he or she can get a good idea of what they’ll be facing through Remote Triage,” Streater says. “Let’s say a customer is having problems with an MRI machine. They’ve already entered the make, model, and year, so the system knows about any common issues it might have.”

Remote Triage asks questions about the machine’s symptoms and gives possible solutions, thanks to the decision-making AI on the backend. “The system is constantly taking in new data, so the answers can change, they’re not static,” Streater says. “Even for experienced techs, they can find answers to hard-to-diagnose issues.”

As a result, it’s more likely that the tech that’s dispatched to the site has the parts and tools on hand to make the repair, which leads to fewer truck rolls and an increase in positive customer ratings and first-time fix rates.

Like any other kind of analytical tool, AI and Remote Triage are fueled by the data that’s been inputted and only gets smarter as more data is introduced. But there’s an obstacle that hinders progress: While there’s a great deal of data being collected and processed now, much of the information from the past that could help in field service is locked away in legacy systems and hard-to-access formats like emails, PDFs, and conversation transcripts. AI can help resolve this challenge as well. 

AI can help with natural language processing, meaning it can analyze, say, an old, transcribed conversation between a technician and customer and add it to the bank of data for Remote Triage to pull from, thereby making hard-to-access information available for use and creating a more powerful system, Streater explains.

There’s even potential for AI to work with Internet of Things (IoT) platforms to provide preventative maintenance and automate work orders. For example, 3D Systems, a parts manufacturers that offers customers access to 3D printers through a servitization model, now works with ServiceMax and Acquant.io to improve the speed and reliability of its services through AI. 

Aquant.io’s platform works by mining and analyzing companies’ data to learn their service language and build an AI-driven decision framework around it that service technicians can rely on. The platform is available through the Remote Triage tool and equips technicians with 20 years’ worth of knowledge in seconds. That means any issues that 3D Systems’ customers face can be pinpointed and resolved quickly, regardless of how much field experience a technician has. 

In addition to diagnosing problems, Aquant.io’s platform enables companies to be proactive about predicting service needs—something that would be virtually impossible to do without artificial intelligence collecting data, noticing patterns, and anticipating needs.

By alerting a customer to the problem and dispatching a tech to resolve the issue before that customer even recognizes that something is wrong, companies can provide a whole new level of service, becoming proactive providers of support instead of reactive ones.

As organizations start to see the payoff from their investments in AI-powered field service technology, they’ll likely gain the confidence to push the needle and experiment even further. Already, however, AI is making field service smarter, faster, and more proactive.