Before COVID-19 struck the world, field service operations were already undergoing digitalization and transformation so technicians out in the field had more tools at their disposal as they repaired equipment far away from offices. COVID-19 and the need to do more business remotely only accelerated the need to digitalize operations and empower technicians with more tools and resources to support long hours of work away from headquarters.
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This need is particularly acute in asset-centric businesses such as utilities, oil and gas, healthcare, and construction and transportation, with its field-based heavy equipment assets.
“In healthcare as one example, we’ve been witnessing the need to track and maintain assets during COVID-19 such as MRI machines and ventilators,” said Stacey Epstein, chief marketing and customer experience officer at ServiceMax, a field service software company. “Organizations need to know where their assets are and whether these assets are being properly maintained.”
How IoT helps with asset management
Now that some business activities have resumed, there is demand for asset tracking and maintenance.
“Before the relaunch of businesses, companies like restaurant equipment suppliers saw their businesses grind to a halt, and they lost employees,” Epstein said. “With the relaunch, some of these companies have hired new employees to replace the service technicians that they lost, but many new workers lack the same service knowledge. In other cases, companies with pent-up work orders want to make decisions as to which equipment they can afford to let run an extra month so they can get to the more immediate maintenance cases.”
In situations like these, companies that are further along in their digitalization and Internet of Things (IoT) journeys have a distinct advantage. These companies can use IoT to track assets and collect data on assets that tells them whether they have an immediate need to keep a particular asset in working order.
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They can run diagnostics and quickly determine whether they can repair an asset remotely by sending out a software fix, or whether they need to dispatch someone to the field to perform onsite maintenance. If they have newer, less-experienced service technicians, companies can equip these employees with laptops and mobile phones that enable immediate video conferences with in-house service experts so that sticky repair problems can be quickly solved.
In field service, it also becomes easier to track warranty and entitlement issues, such as whether a particular part on a machine has failed and should be replaced for free. Many systems now enable you to plug IoT into the base system. These systems have the ability to ingest audio and video data.
“We can do this because we now have field service systems that can track an asset down to the part level,” Epstein said.
From a data perspective alone, systems like this reflect some of the success companies have had in integrating big, unstructured data with standard records-based data.
How does all this help you tune up your field service operation?
“First, you have to understand that you can’t just put in a couple of weeks if you want to transform your service operation,” Epstein said. “You should start with evaluating your requirements. Then, identify the big wins and go after them.”
One method is to study the service workflows of your business, asking questions such as how you are maintaining equipment and assets, how you are scheduling maintenance for them, and how you are tracking warranties. Equally important is the degree of integration you are able to achieve between your records-based data systems and your unstructured “big” data systems that contain photos, video, audio, pdf files, and schematics.
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The goal is to properly integrate and deliver all of this information to the remote devices of technicians in the field so they have the tools and support they need when they need them.
“Those in field service who have moved forward with their digital strategies are reaping rewards because they are able to understand the health of their equipment and to manage it remotely,” Epstein said. “Other companies have been caught flat-footed as they struggle to maintain business continuity in a remote world. This is pushing companies to make the transition to a new normal in industries that rely on field technicians to keep their businesses running.”