Plant & Works Engineering
Visualising the future of plant maintenance
Published:  16 October, 2018

Nick Boughton, sales manager at leading systems integrator Boulting Technology, explains how AR and VR are re-defining plant maintenance.

Virtual technology has been around for almost half a century, with industries such as entertainment, education and design all incorporating varying aspects. However, it has only been in the past five years where augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have made their way into industrial environments such as manufacturing, processing and energy generation.

Data is revolutionising the way manufacturers operate and plant maintenance is the latest process to undergo this evolution. Enabled by Industry 4.0 technologies and the increased networking of equipment, such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and human machine interfaces (HMIs), predictive maintenance uses data obtained by sensors to facilitate consistent monitoring of the condition of all equipment. By analysing this data, engineers can predict when equipment parts may need servicing or replacing, allowing them to intervene before the system fails.

AR and VR are taking this level of maintenance one step further. By using a smart phone, pair of ‘smart glasses’ or a headset, maintenance engineers can create a digital representation of the fault and, more importantly, the solution. Using highly sophisticated software, the engineer can pull up a full set of diagnostics of equipment featuring real-time data and the action that needs to be taken.

VR builds on this even further by placing the engineer in a fully immersive digital environment. With the headset on, the engineer can speed up time, using data to visually pinpoint exactly when the system may fail.

This level of maintenance allows repairs to be predicted and planned for, ensuring the correct replacement part is ordered well in advance, minimising production downtime.

A helping hand

As the engineering skills gap continues to grow, with an expected 182,000 people with engineering skills needed each year between now and 2020, having a team with the relevant skills may not always be possible.

The rising gap means many engineers do not have the knowledge or capabilities to deal with particular equipment faults, until they undergo internal training. This significantly impacts the productivity of a team, as rather than hitting the ground running, the engineers will have to undergo extensive training before they can start work.

While the UK manufacturing industry has called on the government to tackle this issue, with the subsequent launch of the Made Smarter Review, training the number of engineers to tackle the shortfall will take considerable amounts of both time and money. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies may be able to provide a stopgap for this issue.

As AR technology advances, one of the biggest applications will see offsite suppliers, providing visual support through smart devices. Rather than a simple phone call, the AR system will allow suppliers to show their customers exactly how to service or replace a part. By providing them access to relevant maintenance data, the supplier can suggest the best course of action, which may include sending one of their own engineers out to assist.

With data becoming increasingly accessible through the cloud, this level of support builds on the growing servitisation trend, where the end user subscribes as part of a software service model. Companies such as Siemens are well on their way with this journey.

Training for the future

It is also believed that AR and VR can help directly tackle the STEM skills shortage from a training perspective. Not only can budding engineers use the technologies to put theory into practice without impact on the day-to-day running of the plant, but VR can also be incorporated into the training room, enabling apprentices and new engineers to explore the plant environment digitally. This type of activity encourages collaboration, while providing a more enhanced learning experience for engineers.

While the future looks bright for the use of VR and AR in engineering, there are still challenges that lie ahead, which are mainly due to the complex nature of engineering systems and models. That said, both technologies are already making an enormous impact on the sector, as they allow access to situations that would otherwise be difficult to visualise or might typically be inaccessible. In the coming years we hope to see a far more integrated approach between hardware and software solutions.