Remotely operated MRO system helps resolve field expertise issue

Posted on 1 May 2013

IBM and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre have developed a remote operated inspection system that could reduce response times, improve audits and create interactive training for maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operations.

The efficiency of maintenance (MRO) operations can be constrained by several factors, the experience of the field engineer on site and location of the correct asset to repair being at the top.

Technology giant IBM and the AMRC have developed a mobile system to augment MRO which taps the broader experience of office-based senior engineers, which they claim can reduce response times, improve MRO quality, improve the audit process and produce a new type of training tool.

The system is made up of a mobile device using GPS to locate a field engineer to the correct asset – finding the target asset is apparently still a big problem in many applications – and a clamp-on device comprising robotic arm with stereoscopic camera holding a pico laser projector.

Operated remotely, the telescopic robot arm manoeuvres into place above an engine block, for example, and the image is broadcast to a monitor.

The camera and projector provides a live feed image of the engine or complex assembly, allowing the field technician to share his maintenance ‘experience’ with an expert back at headquarters, or theoretically anywhere with internet access. The expert can advise on unusual or more complex repair solutions.

“We currently use tools like Facetime to share live images via mobile phones. With IBM we have gone own route of a bidirectional solution,” said Dr Rab Scott, head of visualisation and simulation at the AMRC. “How do you know where your field engineer is at a point in time? This solution means getting the right information to the right person at the right time.”

A proof of concept model has been demonstrated at the AMRC Diamond Jubilee Knowledge Transfer Centre to most of the AMRC partners and several have expressed interest in investing in a proven system.

IBM AMRC - MRO inspection device
IBM AMRC - inspection device allows experts to advise technicians on MRO problems

“It’s an assembly of off-the-shelf technologies fused in an innovative way – this is innovation but not invention,” says IBM’s technical director for the UK, Richard Lanyon-Hogg. “We did this deliberately to make it work with the problems at hand now, because the demographic challenges exist now.”

IBM and the AMRC say that the driver for the solution is mainly demographic, rather than a market-need from a specific, sector application like maintaining power generation or aeroengines.

“We’ve seen too often that jobs have been held up because the expert has been held up somewhere else,” said Mr Scott. “Companies cant afford to have top experts out in the field in all MRO applications.”

Richard Lanyon-Hogg added, “Companies have an ever growing set of assets which they are responsible for maintaining, and you have a workforce which, demographically, is shrinking.

How can you preserve and utilise that knowledge?

“This can provide a solution – you put your senior engineers at the “control centre”, and send out the technicians who are at this end of their career to do the maintenance.  This makes them more confident and upskills people. It will help to plug the skills gap.”

Another benefit of the system, the partners say, is in creating an interactive training tool.

“Young people today learn differently to the engineers of yesteryear. We need to address that and embrace everyday technology,” said Scott.

A video is created at a technician works on a project. When the next engineer goes to the site, they can replay the video on a mobile appliance to assess how he’s going to solve the problem. IBM / AMRC hopes this will develop into a learning aid which is works from a best practice, as well as health and safety perspective.

“You can imagine a company building a log of MRO activity which it can then use as a training base for new engineers. You can build on this again and again,” Lanyon-Hogg said.

Video images and projector data are piped to the monitor by Ethernet or phone cable, which might restrict the units utility in certain applications, but it has being developed with wireless capability.