The Importance of Service to the Manufacturing Sector

Industrial Machinery and Equipment (IM & E) manufacturers form an integral part of the manufacturing supply chain as their equipment plays a critical role in the automation of production processes such as shaping, extruding, molding, crimping, cutting, folding, etc.  In addition, every manufacturing process has its own set of specialized machinery. For example, manufacturing equipment in the food processing industry is different from equipment found in the apparel manufacturing industry.  These machines must perform at very high levels of reliability to keep manufacturing processes operating at optimal levels of productivity.  The lost value to manufacturers of machine downtime is extremely high.  It is not atypical for a manufacturer to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in lost revenue due to machine downtime.

 Challenges to keeping factories running

Providing fast and efficient service in the industrial machinery world is no a small feat for equipment service providers. Diagnosing and resolving equipment problems quickly is challenging when the machinery is highly complex, the installed base is relatively low and plants are scattered worldwide.  Service organizations of IM&E manufacturers are usually staffed by a small cadre of field service engineers (FSEs) and technical experts.  IM &E FSEs often possess deep subject-matter expertise in some but not all product lines.  The FSE who assembles and installs the machine is often the same person who diagnoses the problem and initiates corrective action.

In addition, machines are manufactured to customer specifications.  Thus, service is not standardized from machine to machine and there is often a huge knowledge gap among FSEs and between customers.  Language barriers can also make it difficult for customers in one country to communicate with FSEs in another and vice versa.  Furthermore, machines often have a long service tail and be in operation for 10, 20 or more years.  Thus, there may be no one at the customer’s site who has the knowledge to maintain the equipment properly.  Tribal service knowledge, where knowledge that rests in the minds of individual FSEs is shared with others through verbal communication, is the norm within the IM &E service market.

 The Service Conundrum

IIM&E manufacturers typically help customers resolve service issues by first attempting to diagnose and resolve problems over the telephone and prior to dispatching a FSE to repair the machine.    However, there are certain times when the service expert cannot resolve the issue remotely.  In other cases, the remote service expert may not understand what the customer is describing over the telephone or vice versa, or maybe the technician simply needs to see the problem for himself.   When situations like these occur, the FSE must travel to the customer’s site to troubleshoot, diagnose, and resolve the problem.

Onsite travel is both time-consuming and expensive.  It may involve a flight to another country and days at the customer site to resolve the issue.  Capacity constraints may prevent that technician from traveling to the customer’s site.  Also, if the FSE is at the customer’s site, no one else may be available to handle incoming requests from other customers.

At times the IM&E service provider may send an alternative FSE.  There is a chance that the FSE who arrives onsite may not have seen this issue before and needs additional assistance to resolve the problem. In this case, the FSE assigned may need to telephone a more experienced technician for back-up support.   Other challenges include the fact that many IM &E manufacturers do not charge for service.  Furthermore, lengthy road trips add significantly to operating costs and place a great deal of stress on technicians.

 From Road Warrior to Service Hero

Fortunately, IM&E Manufacturers now have a solution to their challenges: Augmented Reality.  By using smart glasses or a smart phone, machine operators at the customer site can capture a video image of the equipment and then transmit it to the equipment manufacturer’s service technician at another location.  If it is a relatively simple issue, for example one that can be resolved through a customer replaceable unit, the remote support specialists can send images, text, and annotated repair instructions back to the customer so that the customer can resolve the issue himself.  This saves time and money, as downtime and lost productivity is minimized for the customer. A live chat session can also be opened so that the customer and technician can communicate in real-time.

Considering FSE travel and per diem costs (e.g., meals, hotel, etc.) to another country can be quite expensive, savings from providing remote support through an AR platform can add up to thousands of dollars per service event.  This is a huge savings given the fact that a large percentage of service issues are the result of end-user (e.g., machine operator) error.   Fieldbit, Ltd., a leading provider of AR solutions, has been able to help its customers in the IM &E market improve remote resolution rates by as much a 50%

AR solutions like those provided by Fieldbit also make it possible for IM & E suppliers to improve first-time fix rate. Repeat visits to solve the same problem are costly for the IM &E service provider not to mention stressful and embarrassing to their FSEs.  Normally, if the FSE lacks proper parts and/or skills to enable a fix, he must return or wait onsite until the correct resources are supplied.  However, with AR, the remote service specialist can obtain rich contextual information about the machine problem, isolate or identify the fault, and then determine what skills and parts the FSE needs to have with him when he arrives onsite.  The FSE can also use live chat to communicate with the remote support specialist while onsite if additional troubleshooting and diagnostics are required.  Utilizing AR to improve FSE proficiency minimizes the percentage of times onsite service calls are broken or extended due to the lack of spare parts or skills, thus improving “First Time Fix” rate.

Another practical application of AR solutions is in the creation of a self-learning knowledge base. Remote support specialists can use the AR platform to develop and record step-by-step repair procedures for resolving equipment issues that are stored in a searchable database.  When a customer or FSE encounters a similar situation, he can search the database for the right solution.  The technical learning curve is shortened and on-the-job training time can be reduced by as much as 40% using this approach.

Recognizing the high value in use for machine uptime and the tremendous impact Augmented Reality plays in cost avoidance, many end-users have begun to monetize their investment in these platforms.  For example, Fieldbit’s customers include downloadable, one-time-use licenses for in the service level agreements they sell to their end-customers (i.e., machine users).  The benefit is clear: AR not only improves customer satisfaction and reduces service delivery costs, but drives additional profit to the service provider’s bottom line.


Michael Blumberg is an Associate Partner at Si2 Partners. He is a Field Service, Service Marketing and Reverse Logistics expert as well as President of Blumberg Advisory Group

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This article first appeared in the May 11, 2017 of Field Service News