Asset Management

Learning to use new technologies is crucial—if you can find a few minutes

Getting some exposure will begin to point out some use cases where it might be helpful.

By Jim Montague

One of my daughters once tossed me a hand-me-down flip phone and what looked like a paperback novel to go with it. It probably would've been helpful to read this manual, if I'd had the time, but I never did. I also never got around to signing up for the Apple Store class for the castoff iPhone 5 that I'm carrying around now. I know it can do all kinds of cool and useful things, too, but I have no idea what most of them are.

Sound familiar? It should because almost everyone I interview, and I'm betting most of Control's readers, are at least as busy as the famous one-armed wallpaper hanger to whom I often compare myself. 

Learning anything new, heck, even doing anything different, just takes too much time away from ever-pressing production demands. I know this is equally true for process engineers as it is for us trade publications, and it's equally applicable to many other professions I've covered. These aren't cases of "if it's not broke, don't fix it," but more like "if I try to fix it, I'll break it." I'd bet this is a symptom of the endless racheting up of "do more with less," which creates fragile, perilously balanced processes that can't tolerate any deviation from routine, even if those changes could make the process better.

Aside from the usual job-related stress and a few potential gains lost, this isn't a tragedy at most times because essential production is maintained. However, the stakes are a lot higher now because several emerging technologies are changing so fast that not learning to use them can carry potentially huge costs.

Of course, I'm mostly talking about the ever-faster, cheaper and more powerful microprocessors, software, Ethernet ports and networks, and server-based computing services fueling the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). However, there appear to be a couple of related technologies that are also tapping into this meteoric momentum, namely augmented reality (AR) and its virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) cousins.

Because AR/VR and others use so many colorful pictures and floating graphics, I think many process industry professionals think they're just like the 3D simulations and walkthroughs that were mostly flashes in the pan years ago. I did, too, until I got hip-deep in the research and interviews for this issue's cover story. As usual, getting out and talking to people flushed away my preconceptions, and clued me in about a common belief that AR is going to be hugely helpful to users in many industrial settings.

Just as HMI panels, tablet PCs and smart phones were a big step up from the paper and clipboards of the past, AR on headsets and wearable devices is likely to be another big step up from screens, even if they're tablets and phones. I'm more confident than usual about this prediction because they're happening for the same reason. For example, the jump from paper to screens put more information in front of users more easily, which enabled less shuffling, filing and lost documents. Likewise, the jump from screens to AR puts applicable data, and documentation right into each user's field of view, along with images of the equipment they're working on. Even better, AR allows real-time collaboration between field personnel and remote experts, who can both see the same views, scrawl digital arrows and circles on each other's interfaces, and use many other tools.

I hope I haven't been hypnotized by hype, but the potential here seems genuine. Several sources caution it's important for potential users to focus on a use case where they could apply AR, and this is good advice.

However, I'd also recommend finding some way to spend a little time just playing with whatever AR tools you can get you hands on. Go to whatever tradeshow exhibit or local retailer that has Microsoft HoloLens, Oculus Rift, Vuzix or one of the others, and try them out. If any of your younger-generation relatives or neighborhood kids has one, ask them for a turn. I think just trying out and getting some exposure to AR will begin to point out some of those individual use cases where it might be helpful.

No need to let me know how it goes, unless you want to. However, for all those that do devote a little time learning about AR, I promise I'll go find the Reader Rabbit PC program my daughters recommended when they were early grade school, and finally learn to touch type. Another good investment.