Augmented Reality: Zoom for Frontline Workers
Written By: David Immerman
7/15/2020 Read Time : 5 min

A frontline worker or ‘deskless worker’ completes their daily tasks in physical environments. They make up around 75 percent of the total global workforce, about 2.5 billion people. While many desk workers use their hands for typing on desktops, frontline workers typically use them for solving physical problems.

The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t significantly impacted most desk workers ability do their jobs. Traditional office workspace roles such as accounting and finance, claim little or no difficulty in working from home. However, frontline workers’ aren’t able to have a similar virtual experience; an estimated 62 million US frontline workers are asked to continue reporting to work.

This is understandable as 17 million of these workers support critical infrastructure and 18 million healthcare workers are needed to combat the crisis. However, only 1% of business software spend focuses on these frontline, deskless workers. While remote collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack increased rapidly in adoption for desk workers due to the pandemic, frontline workers require a different set of digital tools for their work.

Augmented reality supports business continuity in the ‘new normal’ 

The question the CxOs of industrial companies pressed during these unprecedented times centered around how to maintain business continuity with constrained resources. Specifically, maintaining high levels of operational efficiency, worker productivity, and other KPIs during a time where 81% of businesses are implementing travel bans and workspace congestion rules to adhere to stringent social distancing guidelines.

This includes the distribution of critical and timely information to frontline personnel. For example, the most effective form of learning for frontline workers is through job shadowing/pairing training programs (75% of IndustryWeek respondents agree). With social distancing and travel limitations these collaborative learning methods, which traditionally required physical presence, halted for many overnight. This creates significant bottlenecks in on-boarding new staff and derivative operational impacts, such as increased scrap and rework costs from lesser prepared personnel performing mission-critical tasks. Both results are increasingly prevalent consequences of the new normal for industrial companies.

In this new normal, augmented reality (AR) provides a method for frontline workers to maintain business continuity. AR manages, disperses, and scales information in real-time, whether it's work instructions for assembling a product or domain expertise for training, among countless other situations.

Below we dive into AR use cases helping maintain business continuity today.

Real-time Remote Assistance

In the world of heavy-industrial companies, unexpected and complex problems are the norm. The time, resources, and skillsets needed to remediate these problems can pile on and deteriorate critical KPIs for downtime and productivity. With an operationally limited and geographically constrained staff as a result of COVID-19 travel bans and workspace limitations, these problems compound in impact.

Remote Assistance via AR instantly connects remote experts to field personnel through a live video feed for over-the-shoulder support where both the expert and end user can collaborate in real time on problems. Instead of looking at an out-of-context and outdated instructions manual, the end user is immersed within the 3D environment where the expert can anchor annotations and content remotely. The frontline worker can use this AR application to request assistance from the expert at another work site, at a corporate office, or even at home.

Apply this to a geographically constrained medical equipment service team whose widely dispersed equipment is deployed in COVID-19 ICUs. These machines are saving lives and uptime is of upmost importance. The service team must be as efficient as possible in its service repairs with a strung-out service staff consisting of many new hire technicians. Using Remote Assistance for over-the-shoulder live support from experts, the team can achieve faster repair times and higher first-time fix rates. Unsurprisingly, 72% of service teams agree that the Remote Assistance use case is the service problem AR is best suited to improve first-time fix rates.

Real-world examples

Toyota’s production staff oversees the installation of new manufacturing lines and maintenance of existing ones. The OEM physically sends staff to operations across the globe for this important process. Implementing Remote Assistance allows Toyota to reduce physical travel (eliminating four onsite visits a month per section manager) and downtime costs with its production staff remotely resolving factory installation and maintenance issues.

Rockwell Automation and Howden are also offering Remote Assistance in their own operations and customers for similar functionality.

Capture & create pre-authored content to improve productivity

There will be situations where there might not be access to a remote expert for assistance. Many workers with this domain knowledge are retiring at an alarming rate and creating a skills gap over the next few years. Industrial companies need to capture this unique expertise and efficiently disperse or transfer knowledge to less experienced personnel to maintain business continuity and levels of productivity.

With augmented reality, companies can now capture these expert workflows and easily distribute them to different personnel. These captured workflows could be useful for training new hires in the classroom or giving them on-demand access to ‘how-to’ work instructions for reference when in the field.

Pre-authored AR content can also be created by embedding existing 2D standard operating procedures or instructions into the AR experience and/or leveraging existing data sources such as CAD and IIoT. These methods provide an innovative means for the frontline worker to access the right information at the right time.

Putting these instructions in-context to the worker’s environment reduces the cognitive distance the employee would typically face when using a 2D paper manual, like with standard operating procedures. With AR this information is mapped and anchored to the physical environment to generate specific, accurate, and up-to-date content as it's needed, such as servicing a specific machine or assembling a product.

Real-world examples

BAE Systems is training new employees to assembly products 30-40% more efficiently than previous methods through virtual work instructions. GlobalFoundries has captured expert workflows to standardize and scale its operating procedures for new workers to improve how they learn (reducing classroom training by 50%, accelerating training on-ramp time by 40%) and generate efficiencies (decreased unscheduled downtime by 25% and scrap and rework costs by 25%).

Final thoughts

COVID-19 has created questions of uncertainty for industrial companies and forced them to explore different methods and tools in order to maintain business continuity during this crisis. The nature of work for the frontline worker is rapidly changing with geographic, governmental, and organizational hurdles restricting their physical presence to complete hands-on tasks.

While Zoom and other collaborative desktop-friendly digital tools have enabled a relatively seamless transition for desk workers, frontline workers require a method to remain immersed in their environment, where information is overlaid in-context and available on-demand. Augmented reality is the platform to drive these experiences, empower the frontline worker, and foster a productive workforce.



Tags: Augmented Reality
About the Author David Immerman

David Immerman is as a Consulting Analyst for the TMT Consulting team based in Boston, MA. Prior to S&P Market Intelligence, David ran competitive intelligence for a supply chain risk management software startup and provided thought leadership and market research for an industrial software provider. Previously, David was an industry analyst in 451 Research’s Internet of Things channel primarily covering the smart transportation and automotive technology markets.