Remote maintenance via virtual reality

Industrial plant operators are currently reducing the number of employees in many areas on site in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. To ensure that plants still run smoothly, Bilfinger is helping businesses to maximize the number of operations they can perform remotely.

Offering quick, customized assistance on site – despite being miles away – is possible thanks to virtual industrial services. This enticingly simple idea is now within reach thanks to cutting-edge technology. There are two ways of providing convenient support from any location: Firstly, an expert located anywhere in the world can access systems to control and monitor production via a secure, specially configured Internet connection. With the second option, an off-site expert gets to see whatever is within an on-site colleague’s field of vision, making it easy to troubleshoot the problem in real time and provide the necessary help. So how does it work? It’s all done digitally with a pair of augmented reality (AR) glasses.

Bilfinger Maintenance, for instance, uses AR glasses wherever specialist knowledge is required for specific maintenance and repair tasks. Rather than traveling to the relevant location, the expert can use software to connect with a colleague on site. Despite being hundreds of kilometers away, the expert is able to view the plant in real time through a camera in the local colleague’s AR glasses and simultaneously discuss the issue with him over the phone. If necessary, additional maintenance or repair information – be it technical data or manufacturer specifications – can be transmitted from a screen into the colleague’s field of vision. The colleague on site has his hands free and can carry out the necessary repair or maintenance.

For a current project in Poland, Bilfinger provided one of the customer’s employees with AR glasses in order to gain virtual access to the facilities. Bilfinger staff were unable to enter the plant at short notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meeting tough assignments

“AR glasses save time, cut travel costs and reduce health risks associated with the current situation,” says Jörg Stieglitz, Rollout Manager Digital Solutions at Bilfinger Maintenance. “We provide the hard- and software to match colleagues’ and customers’ individual needs.”

The demanding on-site conditions in the process industry set the bar high for AR glasses and the software used. In hazardous – for instance, potentially explosive – areas of a plant, safe use in line with applicable standards must be ensured. And even with loud background noise, the employee on site still has to be able to operate the AR glasses by voice control.

 

“AR glasses save time, cut travel costs and reduce health risks associated with the current situation.

Jörg Stieglitz, Bilfinger Maintenance GmbH

With this in mind, Bilfinger Digital Next selected the models best suited to industrial services from the wide range on the market. Bilfinger’s digitalization subsidiary has spent the past few years developing and testing remote maintenance via AR glasses for use within the Group. Now that the technology has been handed over to Bilfinger Maintenance, it is being put to practical use in the remote maintenance business. “We will continue to expand our range of services going forward,” says Stieglitz. “Given the current surge in demand, we are now exploring ways in which involving remote experts can also work with standard software and equipment such as cameras or smartphones.”

 

Safe remote access to it

Bilfinger GreyLogix offers another solution for operating plants with reduced on-site personnel. Systems engineer Marvin Dunn sets up direct, encrypted access to industrial customers’ systems for the purposes of controlling and monitoring their production facilities. When customers log into their plant systems via a virtual private network (VPN), it’s as if they were personally on site. “It’s basically like a virtual extension cable connecting the computer to the plant IT systems,” Dunn explains. “The computer can access the systems as if it were actually connected to them via a physical cable.”

Besides setting up remote access for customers, the Bilfinger GreyLogix team carries out the necessary security updates on an ongoing basis. “Our experience in industrial services is a real advantage in this regard. We have been familiar with many of our customers’ plants, systems and requirements for years,” says Marvin Dunn.

A few weeks ago, Dunn was asked by a customer of Bilfinger GreyLogix’ Hamburg office to set up remote access to that customer’s systems: “As a result, our customer is not only saving time and effort as well as costs, but they are also protecting the health of their employees. After all, they no longer need to send someone to the plant just to access the production systems.”

Alongside access to a plant’s control systems from any location, Bilfinger GreyLogix provides additional virtual plant solutions. On request, our colleagues can also be tasked with regularly checking plant data and alerting plant operators to any irregularities. With its sites in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Russia, the Bilfinger subsidiary also has the capacity to record and store data as well as to update and maintain IT infrastructure at industrial plants. In this way, plants can be “virtualized” gradually.

Jörg Stieglitz and Marvin Dunn agree: “While technologies such as AR glasses and remote access to plant control systems are the way of the future, that future began long ago at Bilfinger. These technologies are fully developed and successful projects already testify to their benefits. The significant surge in demand triggered by the current situation can serve our customers as a springboard into the world of virtual industrial plants.”

Published in issue 02.2020


Further articles from issue 02.2020

Working side by side hundreds of kilometers apart: A secure connec tion allows experts to access key systems.

Print