AR Makes the Leap from Amusing Plaything to Powerful Productivity Tool

Augmented reality becomes a potent tool in the kit for operators looking to optimize performance and lower costs in treatment facilities.

Interested in Instrumentation?

Get Instrumentation articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Instrumentation + Get Alerts

Many of us are used to thinking of augmented reality as some kind of gimmick — an exhibit at a county fair or trade show where we put on special goggles and get immersed in a new view of the world.

It’s cool, we think, but nothing of much practical value. But that’s where we are wrong. Augmented reality (a cousin of the more complex virtual reality) is coming into its own as a tool with a variety of applications in work settings, including water and wastewater treatment facilities.

Among much else, it’s a way of connecting plant operators remotely with technical experts who cannot only tell but show them precisely how to monitor a piece of equipment, perform maintenance, make repairs and more. It doesn’t necessarily require fancy equipment; in many cases a tablet computer or smartphone is enough.

Veolia North America now provides augmented reality as part of its Hubgrade platform, which combines a portfolio of digital solutions with human expertise. The platform uses artificial intelligence, advanced machine learning, augmented reality tools and more.

It encompasses a wide range of digital solutions for monitoring, evaluating and optimizing facilities and infrastructure. Veronique Bourgier, vice president of strategy and growth, and Melissa Demsky, senior director of asset management for municipal water, talked about augmented reality technology in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

What is the rationale for promoting augmented reality at this juncture?

Bourgier: It started with an examination of what can we do to better monitor and optimize the plants operated by Veolia North America, of what is actually possible. Augmented reality is not a gadget anymore. It is fully industrialized. The technology is now well adapted to a variety of industrial environments. There are a lot of recent evolutions of in the augmented reality world that make it useful for daily tasks.

For operators not familiar with it, how would you describe augmented reality in simple terms?

Demsky: For those who have seen or used Pokémon Go, that is an example of augmented reality. You’re seeing reality, but through your phone you see that reality with something layered on top. In this case, a technical expert can layer something on top of a plant operator’s reality, so they can see what the expert is trying to share or show, specific to the equipment in question.

In an operator’s daily work life, how might augmented reality come into play?

Demsky: One example is connecting with technical experts who may live across the country. Suppose that an operator is facing a situation not seen before — the way a basin is operating, how a process is reacting, what an analyzer is showing, the way the sludge looks. Instead of just looking at a picture, the operator and the technical expert can actually see the issue in person, together, and walk through and troubleshoot at the same time.

What is necessary for a facility to be able to use augmented reality?

Demsky: We have partnership with a company that has the licensing and the ticket system to enable the technology.

Bourgier: We use two kinds of licenses: a permanent license and temporary single-use license. The temporary license enables us, in an emergency, to send a license to an operator on site to be used right away.

What hardware devices can be used for the actual augmented reality experience?

Bourgier: At the beginning, augmented reality was only available with smart glasses, but we wanted more flexibility. We can’t say to a customer, “Wait three days and we will send you the smart glasses.” So we can also use a tablet or smartphone, depending on what they need to do. At the same time, the smart glasses are fully industrialized. Users can mount them on a hardhat. They have voice control, noise cancellation and voice recognition features. Smart glasses are better for working on devices because the operators can have their hands free. They can listen to advice and recommendations from an expert and at the same time turn a valve or calibrate an instrument.

Can you provide a specific example of how this works?

Demsky: Consider a pump where our remote support person wants to help an operator perform a vibration analysis. While that operator is looking through the glasses, the expert can point and say, “Attach the probe at this point on the pump. Now let’s walk through how to take a reading. And here’s what that reading is telling us.” This is as opposed to sharing a picture or a video. It’s an active, in-person dialog; that remote technician can see exactly what the operator is doing.

Looking at the bigger picture, can you share an example where augmented reality has had an impact on an entire facility?

Demsky: In the midst of the pandemic when travel was limited, we still had obligations for condition assessment to help facility teams build capital plans. A wastewater treatment facility in Hollister, California, was the site of a pilot project to see how augmented reality might help a remote expert to use predictive maintenance tools to investigate the condition of equipment. We went through a process over several weeks with the on-site field technicians, working with the technology and performing the analyses. We came away with a very strong condition assessment. This is just one example of bringing field staff and remote experts together across the distance to overcome travel challenges.

What are some other areas where you see augmented reality as being potentially beneficial?

Bourgier: Augmented reality can be used in many applications. For training we have a recall feature; the operator can recall the task at any time. We can also use augmented reality to create a knowledge library to include, for example, step by step instructions for specific repair or maintenance task. Then we can create videos for use in training new hires. There are uses for augmented reality at every step: commissioning, troubleshooting, maintenance, operations, just to mention a few.

What would you say are the most essential benefits of augmented reality?

Demsky: Ultimately it comes down to cost savings, because it’s going to help extend the life of equipment and enable better compliance by providing access to expertise in a very quick and technical way. For example, collection system managers can connect with collection crews out in the field, so when they run into something, they don’t have to come back to the office and explain the issue.

How would you assess the future of augmented reality?

Demsky: The possibilities are endless. The more people try it, the more ideas they have for using it. It’s a process of experimentation to see what works and what doesn’t, but having people with different expertise trying different ways to use the technology, we’re going to see continuous improvement as we move forward.   


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.