Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things are revolutionising the way telecoms, solar, and energy firms manage their field operations. We asked Alan Shelly where these technologies are making a difference.
Technology has had a huge impact on Field Service Management (FSM) over the past 8-10 years. Which technology do you think has had the most impact?
It has to be mobile. It’s completely transformed field service work. Today, most work by engineers and technicians in the field is accessed through dedicated mobile apps – schedules, daily routes, customer information, equipment service details, guides, training, and health and safety documents. Work orders can be completed, signed off and sent to headquarters from the field. Paper has been practically eliminated, processes are faster and more efficient, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mobile technology supports the introduction of advanced technologies to field service work, bringing Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), Augmented Reality (AR), and automation to the mobile devices engineers are using every day.
There must be so much data flowing through field service workers’ mobile devices. How are FSM organisations harnessing all of that data?
For any company with a mobile workforce in the field, data is a key asset. So much data passes through FSM systems, and there’s value in all of that data. Data analytics and algorithms powered by AI can scour through the data to uncover patterns and trends and highlight recurring problems. Using this information, organisations can make their processes more efficient, get a real-time view of inventory levels, get ahead of parts availability, and generally make more informed decisions.
Where will companies introduce AI-powered analytics?
AI can play a massive role in the scheduling and routing of engineers to customer sites. By analysing data, AI can determine field workers’ availability, location, workload, skillset and certification. Systems like Simply Workflow can then automate the scheduling process, incorporating all of this data to make sure the right engineer is sent to the right job at the right time.
As the technology becomes more advanced, even more, granular details will be possible, down to identifying the best route for an engineer to take to reach a customer site. So at the start of each day, the field service engineer gets a map and order of service for the day via his mobile device. The map and order of service shows them an optimised route for each call. Combining mobile technology, data, AI and automation, this approach can reduce travel time and fuel costs, and help companies manage their resources better.
Where do you see AI and automation combining in the future?
AI and automation are complementary technologies that can speed up a whole range of processes, mainly repetitive administration tasks. Any field service engineer will tell you about all the documentation they need to complete for every job they do. At the moment we’re looking into how we can make life easier for engineers by using AI and automation to make this part of the job easier for them, by automating all of this form filling, but in an intuitive way. The goal is to free up the engineers to focus on the finer details of a project – health and safety, efficiency, and customer relationships. All of that time spent on form filling can be managed efficiently and consistently by technology.
We’ve seen how AI combines with automation. Does it play well with other technologies?
AI works with many technologies, making them smarter and opening up new possibilities. For example, when AI is integrated with IoT the communication between machines and devices is optimised. This is enabling advances like predictive maintenance, which works by analysing historical data and sensor readings to predict when equipment is likely to malfunction or require servicing. In this way, organisations can minimise unexpected downtime, reduce repair costs, and increase the lifespan of their equipment. With predictive maintenance, organisations can move from reacting to problems to anticipating issues and dealing with them early.
Let’s take, for example, a mobile phone mast based in a rural area that’s powered by a generator. The generator isn’t working as it should – perhaps its efficiency is lagging. It’s a connected generator so its sub-par performance triggers a notification that in turn raises a job in the FSM system to send an engineer to check the generator. What’s happening here is an issue is flagged by the machine itself before it becomes a problem.
Apart from the obvious efficiencies – reduced costs, better customer experience, fewer equipment outages – predictive maintenance means organisations aren’t servicing equipment that doesn’t need to be serviced (as with scheduled maintenance), and they don’t miss something catastrophic in between scheduled maintenance dates.
Moving away from AI for a moment. Mixed realities – virtual reality and augmented reality are also starting to make their way into field service work.
They are, and we expect AR in particular to become more and more popular. AR works by superimposing an image onto a user’s view using smart glasses or even just a smartphone or tablet. With this technology, engineers can be guided through complex repairs by off-site experts. For this to be effective a good deal of work needs to go into the backend, but the benefits justify the background effort: organisations would be able to reduce the need for expert technicians to make on-site visits and they could resolve problems a lot quicker. AR could also be used for technician training, providing new hires with a virtual environment where they can hone their skills.
It’s been an exciting decade or so in the area of FSM, but it sounds like the transformation is just beginning. What other technologies or developments are you looking forward to in the next few years?
Continuous innovation means there’s always something new coming down the line. Whether it’s AI, IoT, automation, advanced analytics or AR, technology is constantly evolving. We’ll continue to see these technologies becoming more advanced, and organisations will find different ways to use them. In the next few years, we’ll start to see these technologies being used to really transform the customer experience. We’ll start to see a more concerted move towards remote service and self-service portals where customers can access equipment information, service records, and Q&As and in some cases, even manage basic issues themselves.