Augmented reality enables smarter maintenance using smartphones and glasses

Visualizing in-situ services will make diagnosis and repair actions more intelligent and effective during industrial processing. A plant maintenance technician in the future could be led to the exact location of a mechanical component in need of maintenance, for example, a valve or a field transmitter, by a smartphone handset or “smart glasses.”


Figure 1: Smart glasses will help to visualize and diagnose industrial maintenance problems. Courtesy: MetsoJust imagine that a plant maintenance technician in the future could be led to the exact location of a mechanical component in need of maintenance, for example, a valve or a field transmitter, by a smartphone handset or "smart glasses." Then he could look up the maintenance history of that specific component and perform an in-situ diagnostics test or vibration analysis. If trouble was noted by a cloud-based analysis he could look up device-specific information, consult a repair manual, or call a supplier help center—all hands-free without having to go back a control room or maintenance shop. With this on-the-spot visualization, a repair could be made quickly and surely before a failure happens. This so-called "augmented reality" sounds very futuristic, but really it is just around the corner, as these intelligent maintenance applications are being developed and tested as we speak.

There is a sound and justifiable reasoning behind these developments since the maintenance of a complex and widespread industrial manufacturing or resource processing plant is a daunting, time-consuming, and costly task. Yet it is critical for profitability to ensure that the operation is running at top efficiency with minimal disruptions and no costly failures. Most importantly, worker safety must be ensured. There are thousands of active maintenance points in an industrial complex, including valves and field devices that are required for operating the process efficiently and safely, and mechanical maintenance points that need periodic checking to ensure they are not showing imminent failure patterns.

Figure 2: Infrared heat detection cameras will warn of hot spots that may indicate upcoming failures before they happen. Courtesy: MetsoAny new maintenance tools that can improve the effectiveness of maintenance to achieve higher availability and, at the same time, lower the costs of maintenance are well justified. To achieve high equipment availability, it is vital to detect faults early, schedule maintenance, and carry out repairs before production is impacted. This information needs to be easily accessed and intuitively operated so maintenance tasks and decisions are fast, decisive, and cost-effective. 

Fusion of technologies and maintenance needs

To make process and control device condition monitoring more comprehensive, less-time consuming, and less costly, a new mobile condition analysis and maintenance application is being developed. The application is based on commonly used smartphones as portable user interfaces and wireless communications to portable monitoring devices and data analysis based on cloud computing. In addition to a smartphone interface, the use of smart headgear with integral information display glasses, so-called smart glasses, is being developed as well.

Most significantly, this new way of approaching maintenance is a fusion of various enabling technologies and may be leading to a fusion of previously diverse maintenance needs, mechanical equipment. and process control devices that will have a positive impact on the effectiveness and cost of previously separate disciplines. 

Lower cost per point

In a recent Control Engineering article "Connectivity of things: Wireless for the last 100 m of IoT," Rolf Nilsson says there is huge potential for the last 100 meters connectivity of devices such as industrial condition monitoring equipment. He goes on to say that most of the future growth in wireless Internet connectivity will stem from this area. The qualities of these monitoring devices must be low cost, low power consumption, small size, and high reliability for an industrial setting. In addition, the ability to connect to a variety of easy-to-use interfaces such as smartphones, tablet computers, and even smart glasses is essential. This is to streamline the maintenance actions so many points can be surveyed in a day and services actions taken effectively.

The newly developed application makes the best use of a number of enabling technologies and standards, including emerging magnetic navigation technology, low-power micro-electromechanical (MEMS) machinery condition sensors, low-power wireless Bluetooth communications, and cloud computing access via a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. The new portable user interface extends the reach of hardwired systems (that are usually comprised of a few hundred monitored points) to thousands of accessible points. The sensors can be placed during a scheduled maintenance round and can be relocated at a later time.

The concept of the smartphone interface is easy to understand. A maintenance worker will be given a daily maintenance task list determined by a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). The user interface then guides the worker through the complex plant to the device to be inspected. The phone can be used to select necessary sensor measurements directly by a Bluetooth wireless connection. The sensor sends data using Bluetooth to a Wi-Fi gateway into the cloud service. Some intelligent messages can be enacted before data is uploaded into the cloud storage-for instance, low device battery levels or instrument calibration or cleaning requests. This kind of action can be implemented as a simple object access protocol (SOAP) message that is sent to an asset management system (like SAP) or others.

Based on universal standards

To be practical as a data collection and concentration application in an existing mill network with a distributed control system (DCS), fieldbus interfaces, and diverse field devices, a common, universal interface is required. The current mobile maintenance application is being developed with a standard protocol using OPC UA. It can be built up from subsystems with their own OPC UA servers and information can be aggregated to a higher level. The OPC UA itself can be installed on top of different operating systems like Microsoft Windows and Linux, and even on Android. This design provides a secure way to interact with information provided by sensors and devices from different network topologies.

Multiple protocols can be used for transferring condition monitoring data from wireless sensors. The selection is based on available energy, range, and sensor density in the process area. Bluetooth low energy offers the possibility to use smartphones as one access point to data. Other protocols for connecting a large amount of sensors are 6LoWPAN (<1000) and Zigbee (<500).

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