Getting field teams to the right place at the right time with the right inventory or equipment in hand is the first step in meeting customer expectations. Once there, the technicians must be able to get the job done right the first time to fully satisfy the customer. That requires fast access to information: work orders, customer histories (including previous service records), instruction manuals and troubleshooting options. That’s why mobile devices are often the first “tool” that field-based workers will reach for when they arrive at a customer site. Handheld mobile computers, tablets and scanners offer the real-time guidance technicians need to efficiently and effectively complete assigned service actions and move on to the next call. But, often times, that guidance is very visual. Field teams tend to rely heavily on GIS data, CAD drawings and images to locate assets; install, diagnose, maintain and repair equipment; and even assemble new merchandise displays.
Perhaps that’s why I was not surprised to see that more than half (52 percent) of respondents to Zebra’s latest Field Ops Vision Study are currently adopting augmented or virtual reality (VR) technologies. Augmented reality (AR) can be truly transformative. And not just in the literal sense.
AR at a Glance
AR technology combines the physical and digital worlds to help workers quickly see and apply the small actionable data they need to deliver big results. For example, an AR application may overlay digital instructions consisting of text or imagery onto a handheld mobile device’s screen to give workers the detailed guidance they need to complete a task faster and more proficiently than would otherwise be possible using conventional information sources. My colleague, Pat Narendra, demonstrated a few prime examples of how AR technologies may work to support retail and warehouse workers in this way in his recent blog.
However, the AR experience is not one exclusively intended for workers inside the four walls of your facilities. In fact, field-based workers – and the customers being served by those workers – are poised to gain just as much from AR applications. There’s tremendous pressure on organizations to improve operational efficiency on a holistic scale. Sixty (60) percent of those surveyed in our Field Ops Vision Study are embracing a “mobile-first” strategy for that very reason:
“Having seen how these mobile devices help individual workers perform at a higher level, leading organizations are seeing opportunities to achieve economies of scale. They’re scaling mobile technology enterprise-wide and boosting both efficiency and the accuracy of inventory, repair and maintenance procedures, merchandising and last-mile delivery.”
Workers in field service and sales roles are especially scrutinized for their efficiency and accuracy, as they are often perceived by the customer as “the face” of your organization. It is your field teams’ performance by which customers often measure your organization’s performance.
So, why not exploit the handheld mobile computers already being used in the field today by workers to further improve the speed, accuracy and overall quality of their sales and service actions?
Let me share just a few examples of how AR could be used outside the four walls to help you visualize the sizeable impact that a comparatively simple add-on to workers’ mobility toolset could deliver today:
AR Helps Direct Store Delivery (DSD) Drivers Maintain Oversight of Inventory Levels from a Distance So They Can Help Keep Retail, Grocery Shelves Well-Stocked
1. Pat demonstrated in his blog how AR-enabled mobile devices could be used to expedite the picking process for retail. Using those same devices in support of grocery replenishment workflows for DSD is a practical extension of that AR application.
Within a typical grocery store, a significant portion of goods are managed directly by a DSD provider. And though that may not seem like a lot in the scheme of total inventory, even one out-of-stock item can lead to customer dissatisfaction and costly consequences. For example, customers may be inclined to abandon an entire shopping cart because of a single out-of-stock. Why waste time in the checkout line in your store if they’re going to have to stop at a competitor – and wait in line there – to get that item you don’t have available?
With AR, however, DSD providers can improve the operational efficiency of their drivers and help to minimize the risk of such situations. As stock is depleted from the shelves, a grocery store associate can make note of the stock-out by flagging the shelf location in an AR application on the handheld mobile computer they already use for other in-store inventory management activities. A virtual message board tagged with that out-of-stock “ticket” can be populated with critical information that a DSD driver needs to quickly address the issue, including how much stock is required to replenish the shelf; what would be desired to keep in the back storage room (if applicable) due to the number of asset turns/time of year/seasonal trends/etc.; historical forecast information/patterns, etc.
Then, the next time the DSD driver arrives to replenish depleted stock, more forecasting insights can be gathered. Once the driver finishes restocking the shelf, the driver can also take a picture of the shelf using the AR application to demonstrate to his or her respective employer that the replenished stock was restored to the desired level and according to the agreed-upon planogram. This helps to ensure compliance with specific critical details of the agreement with the grocery store customer, such as proper directional placement of the product label, sequencing of stock to create a particular color pattern for presentation, and much more.
AR is Especially Appealing for Workers Who Spend Their Days Making Store Displays Visually Appealing
2. Consider a display installer who is asked to visit a particular grocery or retail store location to set up a product display. With an AR-enabled mobile device in hand, the installer could experience a virtual representation of the display in situ to “see” how it would fit into the location. He or she could then watch an attached video on the mobile device on how to build the display. Once the display is set up, the installer can also flag a virtual message board attached to that work order with instructions on how the DSD driver should subsequently stock the display. Going forward, for a desired interim period, a store associate could update the virtual message board within the shared AR application to ensure the display is restocked with product in accordance to the replenishment agreement (as noted in the first example above).
AR Helps Utility Field Teams Find Assets Fast – and Proactively Identify Potential Problems – to Help Avert Outages
3. Imagine the future state in which a field inspector is checking on the condition of an installed residential gas meter. Using an AR-enabled handheld mobile computer in video-recording mode to view the gas meter, the inspector can tap the touch screen to tag and identify a particular object within the video. He or she could then share that video and associated images via an attached virtual message board and add specific notations to document findings or initiate a new maintenance action. For example, if an identified plumbing joint is excessively corroded and needs to be replaced, the user adds virtual message boards to the video to automate the generation of a field repair report. It can also be viewed by other central office staff resources to verify findings and ensure information is not construed for effectuating repair activities. In other words, AR gives new meaning to the term “find and replace” for utility, mining, oil & gas (O&G) and even transportation & logistics (T&L) field teams for those who understand that asset downtime could lead to devastating service downtime.
AR Helps to Ensure Workers Don’t Overlook Anything
4. In yet another example, AR could be used to automate vehicle status and repair reports for rental car providers, package delivery providers, utilities or even public safety agencies – really any organization that manages a fleet. Imagine a returning vehicle that sustained damage during the last use in the field. An inspector could use an AR-enabled mobile device to record a video of the inspection. Starting with the license plate of the vehicle (to attach driver information), the inspector could walk in a clockwise fashion around the vehicle and flag damage with a virtual message board, inserting details regarding the noted damage. Once the video is complete, an automated repair report can be created, complete with pictures of the damage to effectuate repairs.
Now, these are just a few examples of how AR can be applied right now to capitalize on existing field mobility solutions. There are many other ways that AR can assist with further automation to improve workflow efficiency and worker productivity. My colleagues and I will continue to share potential use cases here on Your Edge in the coming months.
In the meantime, if there’s a use case you’re considering right now but want a reality check on whether or not it’s feasible with the technology platforms you have deployed, you can send me a note via the Comments box below or contact my team via the Zebra website.
A Final Thought:
More than one quarter (29 percent) of decision makers who participated in the Field Ops Vision Study view AR/VR technology as disruptive. However, as my colleague James Poulton reminds us in his recent blog:
“What was once considered disruptive is now considered enabling.”
Whether your field teams are responsible for fixing things to maintain peak performance or displaying merchandise to generate sales, AR can boost their work performance while minimizing the need for training. As customer demand for fast, quality service grows in the digital age, AR technology investments deserve consideration.