by Cassandra Balentine
In 2019, the world was already moving towards technology-driven solutions for everyday challenges. This innovation was sent into overdrive when the pandemic hit. Now, staffing issues and inflation make it continually difficult to conduct business as usual. When it comes to technical support, the answer is mixed reality (MR).
MR integrates both virtual and physical elements in one environment. It is often associated with augmented reality (AR). Today, the service and support of equipment maintenance is transformed with the help of MR/AR tools. From training to trouble shooting, manufacturers offer effective remote support to reduce downtime and minimize the need for onsite assistance. While remote support options were often an option prior to COVID-19, the effectiveness and demand for it has since exploded and is here to stay.
“The pandemic sparked changes that increased demand for remote access, tools, applications, and delivery options that weren’t a priority to our customers before,” comments Izzy Sanchez, manager, service, and systems support, Konica Minolta Business Solutions, U.S.A., Inc. In fact, prior to the pandemic, most business-to-business customers were opposed to bi-directional support tools, which they are now demanding.
Thankfully many manufacturers were properly equipped during the pandemic with existing platforms. “These platforms had a decent adoption rate prior to the pandemic, but have since exploded in popularity,” adds Sanchez.
“When the pandemic hit and the whole world went into lockdown, our industrial print customers still needed to print,” recalls Ayush Jain, HP Printing and Computing Solutions, SLU. He says many of these print service providers (PSPs) were still printing medical and emergency products—some with unprecedented demands that required ramping up production. “We weren’t able to install new presses for those that needed to revamp or work on complex issues. We needed an alternative and brought in MR.”
The dramatic shift in customer buying patterns from brick and mortar stores to online shopping hit the packaging industry especially hard. “The increase meant that many of our customers were seeing their highest volumes on record. This lead to less preventative service and more reactive services, due to the fact that customers were simply too busy to shut down a running production line,” admits Robert McCann, head of service product portfolio, Bobst North America. “If a machine did go down with a technical issue, it was all hands on deck to get a technician in as quickly as possible to resolve the issue.”
For businesses that rely on field service and onsite support requiring site-to-site travel, it was challenging to continue business as usual during the height of the pandemic due to travel limitations and restrictions. “Flights, hotels, and onsite meetings posed risk of exposure to COVID-19. Even though stay-at-home mandates have lifted, remote or hybrid work environments are the new norm. Additionally, with increased travel expenses like flights and gas, companies are beginning to explore new technologies to accommodate this new norm,” shares Nathan Cheng, associate product manager, AR, Epson America, Inc.
Throughout COVID-19 lockdowns, customers seemed even more determined to try to resolve technical issues on their own, initially due to having no choice. “That has carried over to a certain degree now that technicians are able to arrive on-site,” adds Sam Waicberg, president/co-founder, CareAR.
“Just as many that were forced to shop online due to the lockdowns continue to do so after the pandemic, once seeing the ease of convenience many Bobst customers appreciate the value in remote support and continue utilizing the services today,” agrees McCann.
Finding a Place
MR technologies have settled into the permanent picture for many manufacturers when it comes to technical support, and even training.
For example, Bobst has a robust Connected Services platform and AR is utilized for remote trouble shooting. “Going back quite some time, all Bobst equipment is built ‘connect ready,’ meaning that connecting to and pulling information from, is a standard feature.” However, McCann admits that older machinery that remains in the market did not have such capabilities at the time it was manufactured. This is where the company sees a big advantage for today’s AR technology. “Using an external method such as AR glasses allows our local technical support staff to have a much deeper understanding of the situation and the ability to more easily explain or demonstrate a possible resolution to the issue remotely.”
Epson offers remote assistance through AR glasses, which it finds to be an ideal solution to overcome physical distance barriers. “It allows remote experts to see what the field workers are seeing and seamlessly communicate and collaborate with the field workers to complete field tasks,” comments Cheng.
When assistance is required, an Epson field technician can wear AR smart glasses that include a built-in camera, connect to the internet using WiFi or a mobile hotspot, and launch remote assistance software to initiate a call to company experts offsite. Unlike using handheld tablets or smartphones, field technicians wearing AR smart glasses have their hands free to make repairs while collaborating in real time. Smart glasses allow field technicians to view instructions, photos, PDFs, and videos in high quality, while also giving them a wearable display that minimizes visual obstruction and can be virtually transparent when necessary.
AR is being extensively adopted in industrial applications where large complex machinery is operated and maintained by trained professionals. Jain says HP offers five stages of support—site preparation, press installation, operator and engineer training, press maintenance, and issues troubleshooting. AR/MR technologies are integrated in each of these steps today.
“Site preparation can now be done using an AR application that places a virtual life size press in the room helping determine layout accurately, press installation requires step-by-step guidance on assembling the press, which by using AR guides makes the process simple and error proof. We reduce the amount of training required to operate presses by providing fully guided instructions on operations using AR, and through AR it can overlay complete maintenance steps on the physical machine ensuring timely and accurate completion,” explains Jain.
Of course, many times, self serving AR content can not help solve problems, and customers will require help in complex situations. “This is where we use the advanced remote support AR driven applications that allow for our remote engineers to guide customers through troubleshooting as though a real HP engineer was physically present with the customer,” says Jain.
AR support options via Konica Minolta’s AIRe link platform help take the guesswork out of a service situation. “We no longer need a specialist in front of a device, they can see what the technician or customer is looking at, our specialist can point and zoom in to specific areas on a device to guide the person receiving support on the other end. Prior to this, the only suitable alternative was to have a room full of similar devices so that our support representative could follow along with what the person on the other end of the phone was seeing,” shares Sanchez.
Xerox Technical Service Representatives (TSRs) are able to utilize AR in the field as well as customer support agents in contact centers to triage issues and in many cases remotely solve problems that were never possible to fix via a call.
“Results are particularly notable for print product customers who have enabled production equipment operators to resolve a significantly greater number of technical issues with AR guidance without having to wait for a technician to arrive. Processes have also been transformed when it becomes apparent that a site visit is required,” offers Waicberg.
Through AR, TSRs can now “know before they go” to be best prepared for solving the issue on their first visit, and get it right the first time. Waicberg says this consistently resulted in more accurate parts delivery and faster time to resolve because technicians no longer have to re-diagnose once they get onsite and can diagnose the issue in half the time, as opposed to the traditional way of delivering service support.
Further, Waicberg says visual support is 50 percent faster than voice support. “This is another speed and efficiency benefit resulting from onsite technicians connecting with remote Xerox experts, when challenging issues are encountered. Phone-a-friend calls are eliminated and speed to resolution also increased. Customers find AR easy to use and even fun and fast. Customers are also able to share what they see instantly. Employees feel empowered with a new tool that makes them more effective in their job.”
MR technical support offers a win-win solution in many cases. But what does it look like to the user?
With AR, Todd Miller, director support services, Centralized Services, Ricoh USA, Inc., says customers see an increase in the level of support they are receiving as they and/or their technicians are connected to a help desk subject matter expert via the machine. “Customers and help desk agents can share a view of the issue and the steps needed to correct it visually instead of solely relying on verbal communication. This can be advantageous for visual learners and those who prefer to see real-world examples to fully grasp concepts.”
Full remote troubleshooting capabilities are standard features for Bobst and provided at no additional cost during the warranty period of the equipment. “After the warranty has expired, these services are offered on a subscription basis,” says McCann.
With CareAR, all you need is an iOS or Android smartphone. There is no cost to the customers. “With CareAR, customers can also choose to engage with a browser only or download the CareAR app for a richer experience. Rear-facing camera use is a big benefit as nobody really wants to be on screen. When the customer points their camera at the device that needs attention, computer vision gets to work on mapping the space. This enables graphical annotations created by a remote expert to ‘stick’ in place within each customer’s device field of view, even if they move. It is part of a standard Xerox support experience for customers now across many countries and regions,” shares Waicberg.
There is no additional investment for customers to use Ricoh’s AR support; it is included in their standard maintenance agreement. “The end user does need to utilize a smartphone or allow remote access to their machine to take advantage of this support via Ricoh Smart Hands. If they do agree to using their phone, a link is sent to them to start the remote session, and there is no extra fee applied for this remote support software,” offers Miller.
For Epson AR support, Cheng says businesses only need to invest in the AR smart glasses for the field workers and the compatible remote assistance software to kick start the remote assistance.
HP XRSerices is mostly a subscription service. Customers are not locked in and Jain says the investment is low. The subscription comes with a bundle of hardware, software, application stack, the content, and the premium and remote service package.
Currently, support via Konica Minolta’s AIRe link platform does not come at any additional cost to the customer. Although, Sanchez points out that there are peripherals such as smart glasses that are available at a cost. “Our platform works just as well via an iOS or Android smartphone. There is no software required on the customer end, they receive a text message or an email, click on it, and we are instantly connected.”
The Future is Now
As MR technologies are increasingly requested and adopted by manufacturers, service technicians, and end users the next-generation of service is here.
“The future of customer support and services in general is best defined by the Shift Left strategy. Customers need to be empowered with tools and equipment that help them manage operations end to end. The dependencies on equipment providers to maintain and troubleshoot need to be reduced. When complex situations arrive, remote engineers must be competent enough to be able to solve issues on the fly while using the advanced collaborative tools like MR have to offer,” shares Jain.
Miller sees tremendous potential for growth in this area as machine designs empower and enable end users to resolve issues themselves with remote assistance. “The tools available continue to improve and provide an even better experience for both technicians and customers, such as smart glasses and applications built into the machines. We anticipate the growth of combination machines designed for end user maintenance; but even these will require support, which can often be accomplished using AR. Virtual service support will continue to co-exist and complement onsite technician visits and will streamline efficiencies both for technicians and end users, especially for more complex service maintenance needs.”
McCann says the future of AR brings with it the ability to communicate more effectively and to be in many places at the same time. “When projects or issues last for days or weeks, many people have to be involved. This includes being on-site, at the OEM support centers, R&D, and engineering. To have all of the machine data, diagnostic information, technician reports, and customer phone call logs all centrally located and organized and available at our fingertips offers the best opportunity at completion or resolution. Too often delays are due to a lack of information or a miscommunication. A connected factory with all players on the same page is the best path towards productivity.”
The future of remote support will only become more immersive, interactive, and proactive, believes Waicberg. “For example, remote support experiences will likely move to the metaverse. CareAR’s immersive SXM platform will allow customers and service technicians to interact in the metaverse using three-dimensional renderings, digital twins, and an extensive content library for self-solve experiences. More real-time data will be available for support technicians for in-the-moment data driven action. Our platform investments will continue to drive service experience transformation to increase adoption and deliver value.”
Sanchez also predicts that remote support driven by AR and artificial intelligence (AI) will dramatically shorten support interactions. “The very optics the remote technicians will use to troubleshoot will also help identify parts and provide part numbers. I also believe that audio will also come into play especially with mechanical equipment. Screeching and grinds will also be identified by AI and help hone into the specific areas and even provide solutions in real-time, serving up text and diagrams.”
The adoption and availability of remote service tools that utilize next-generation technologies like AR, AI, and MR are here to stay. Pre-pandemic these options were available, but continuous, worldwide cultural shifts and challenges solidified their importance and in many cases forced adoption. Now that it’s here, we’re not going back.
“Replacing words with video and graphics takes customer support and customer experience to another level,” comments Waicberg.
MR remote technical support and training should be a win-win, reducing the downtime on the production floor and putting control back in the customer’s hands.
Field technicians are essential to many businesses, and those businesses will start investing in new technologies, such as AR remote assistance solutions, to empower the in-field workforce to be more capable and resourceful in order to offer higher quality services to their clients, comments Cheng.
Feb2023, Industrial Print Magazine