In the North East of England, water company Northumbrian Water is mixing 5G with augmented reality (AR) to digitize the knowledge and experience of high-level engineers – bottling up their expertise into headsets to make sure that their knowledge is preserved, even once they have retired.
Two years ago, Northumbrian Water was already brainstorming ideas to put better connectivity to good use. And it turns out the organization's IT team found that there might be more to 5G than faster Netflix downloads.
One potential application of the technology was to connect experienced technicians with newly hired engineers working in the field in real-time.
Northumbrian Water's head of IT strategy and architecture Martin Jackson says the company has a set of highly skilled engineers, who often have more than 30 years of experience with Northumbrian Water, and sometimes even up to 50 years of service. And on the other hand, it also has a new generation of technicians coming in, who could benefit from a briefing on what to expect from, for instance, unusual water pumps in the area, or particularly difficult assets.
It looked increasingly like a missed opportunity. "A lot of these very experienced guys were nearing retirement age. We needed a mechanism that would allow us to capture and tap into their expertise," Jackson tells ZDNet. "We had a new set of individuals coming in, and we wanted to use technology to connect the two so that the experts could share with the new recruits."
Jackson wanted a smooth technology experience for his team: an engineer stuck in front of a faulty water pump should be able to connect in real time with a more experienced technician, even if they're located somewhere else.
Cue 5G. The concept of "remote expertise" was launched, with faster connectivity at its heart. Last October, O2 set up a private network installation in Northumbrian Water's largest operation site, and since then, the company has been trialing the concept using AR headsets.
So far, the technology has been made available to the company's maintenance teams, who go out on the field to make sure that the network's sensors and instruments are regularly monitored. When malfunctions are noted, the field engineers typically carry out some investigative work to find out how to fix the issue.
Now, if they are faced with a job that they can't resolve on their own, they can slip on a headset and liaise directly with another, more senior engineer. The remote expert can see what the field technician sees, provide instructions, and even annotate directly on the screen to show exactly where certain parts can be found.
Jackson explains that, as old-fashioned as it sounds, technicians previously had to rely on phone calls to their more experienced colleagues to try and troubleshoot the issue from a distance. If that didn't work, an expert would then be dispatched on-site at a later date. "This was far more inefficient," says Jackson. "With the headsets, we are much more likely to get the job done right the first time."
It is estimated that the average handling time for operations has reduced by a quarter as a result of the technology. But the benefits of remote expertise don't stop once a specific fault is fixed: every interaction that happens via the headset is captured, so that it can be re-used for training purposes in the future.
"We have a lot of expertise that will be leaving our business in the coming years," says Jackson. "So we won't lose that knowledge base that is potentially going to disappear out of the business."
The concept of remote expertise is now a product that is ready to be scaled up, according to Jackson; but in parallel, the company is also testing some other applications of 5G. This includes "AR mapping" – an idea that Jackson enthusiastically describes as "a fantastic experience", albeit one that is still too far from being mature enough to be fully deployed.
Northumbrian Water manages up to 47,210 kilometres of water mains, pipes and conduits, that are buried underground, alongside infrastructure that belongs to power companies and telecommunications businesses. When an engineer starts digging to access a particular asset, they rely on maps to make sure they don't hit a cable unintentionally; and if the map they have is incorrect, the consequences can be at best, costly, and at worse, fatal.
Accidental strikes on the UK's underground infrastructure cost about £1.2 billion every year to the economy. Along with the government and various other industry players, Northumbrian Water is already participating in the Underground Assets Register project, a £3.9 million initiative that aims to aggregate the location of every asset nation-wide.
Although creating a reliable database is the necessary first step to avoid mishaps, Jackson is already thinking of what comes next. "It would be great if you could visualize all of that data in a 3D form," he says. "Engineers could slip on a headset and actually see the world underground, and decide to dig somewhere knowing there won't be other assets."
His team has already put the idea to the test using Northumbrian Water's own local data and a Microsoft HoloLens. "As a concept and as an experience, it's brilliant, it works really well," adds Jackson. "But first we need to make sure that we have a robust database. It has huge potential, but it's slightly further away on the horizon."
Although AR mapping mostly exists in teaser form at the moment, one thing is certain, continues Jackson: putting cutting-edge pieces of immersive technology in the hands of workers will only create better employee engagement.
Admittedly, the engineers who have been testing the remote expert service were initially wary of the tool; they are, after all "not tech specialists," recognizes Jackson, and needed some time to get comfortable with the device. But very quickly, the technicians saw the benefits of the service, and grew to adopt headsets in their everyday work, while also appreciating that the managing team was investing in next-generation devices and connectivity to improve employee collaboration.
Jackson adds that the technology has had an unexpected by-product for senior teams as well. "We were hearing from many of our experts who were nearing retirement age that they would like to have an option to have a softer landing," he says. "They wanted to stay involved, or at least phase themselves out of the organization."
Remote expertise is a fitting solution: senior engineers can work on a freelance basis, from their homes, providing their expertise on an on-and-off basis when needed. And when they are ready to leave, their knowledge can still be kept digitally to train the next generation.