When it comes to the development of products and the machines that produce them, so-called industrial countries are currently working hard to become faster, more agile, more intelligent and more connected. Not a day goes by without the (specialist) press reporting exhaustively on how digitalisation is turning our lives upside down, and how everyone needs to switch so as not to miss the rushing train of innovation. “Right...” thinks our example service technician Axel B., who is many thousands of kilometres away, looking at a stationary machine from the 80s that has broken down, and at the tools and spare parts that he has taken on his long trip and that somehow are wrong for the problem he is now facing.
“Everything is 4.0”, he continues, “but life is still 2.0”, studded with obsolete, non-updated information in book form – unusable – and several hand-written comments – probably usable, but unfortunately illegible. The greatest skill of an internationally active service technician and the profession as a whole is still the art of improvisation, of successfully managing seemingly impossible repair orders and of miraculously restarting machines that do not seem capable of that in their current state.
It is to the credit of the women and men who possess such mastery of this profession that the reputation of Germany as a manufacturer of high-quality machines and products has been accompanied through the decades by our ability to keep these machines running even in difficult conditions.
But still: Nevertheless there is room for improvement. Let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon.
Separation of information and human
To this day, we connect service technicians to the service information they need to perform a task successfully, with only a small number of projects showing a new way forward. That means that knowledge is stored entirely, or almost entirely, in the service technician’s head. But that also means that the person and the information must travel together to reach the machine. This is true for some new machines, but definitely for all old machines.
Let’s start with new machines. They are often highly automated, connected and therefore able to report their state and the expected service task (“predictive maintenance”). Nevertheless, service information (and the overall service concept) are often not designed for local people, who may be less well trained (and definitely do not speak German), to perform specific maintenance and repair tasks, in full and successfully. The reason for this is not so much technological; it is simply not done. After all, it is possible in terms of both content and terminology to develop information systems fairly quickly that provide exactly this frequently selected and localised information on site. Then there are camera-assisted online channels that can be used to provide high-quality live assistance on request. This method is just as good at reducing or avoiding downtimes as sending a service technician – but it is faster and much cheaper.
One of the central concepts in the world of Information 4.0 is to separate the information from the person and send it on its travels, so it can be used by another user at its destination. Some companies have made considerable progress here, so it is certainly possible to say that the world of service will change massively in this direction.
A compromise provides a temporary solution
Unfortunately, the running machine cannot benefit from all this, as the information modules do not exist. Nevertheless there is help in sight. The term “predictive feedback” can be used to sum up all the activities that describe the state, technical information, setup and function of existing and operating (i.e. not defective!) machines and systems. Mechanical and system engineering Feedback channels that often already exist for other purposes can be used in this case – with the help of camera and video – to send all relevant information about a machine to headquarters. There, the current machine state can be compared to the available documentation, which was created when the machine was first built. In addition, this occasion can be used to update and digitise the information and even modularise it, if possible. This is not a perfect solution, but it is a considerable improvement when repairs are necessary.
The effort required for this activity is manageable, can be performed without interrupting production, and pays for itself after a few successful repairs. Put simply, this yields “Information 3.0” as a temporary solution. Once again, once this activity has been completed, the information and service technician do not need to travel together.
The end result is greater machine availability with less service (effort) – and that is what we are working towards.