Coming to a Site Nowhere Near You: Virtual & Augmented Reality

What do you do if a vital piece of equipment fails in a remote facility and there’s only one factory in the world that services it? You bring the factory to the site.

That’s the value prop for various applications of augmented reality (AR) that ABB showed last week in Houston at ABB Customer World 2019. One uses Hololens glasses to equip field technicians with a broad arsenal of tools. The device can identify equipment by it size and shape, provide technical drawings and maintenance information on-screen on mobile devices (and on-lens in the glasses), and facilitate real-time collaboration with experts anywhere in the world.

TXplore is the world's first submersible robot for the power industry.
TXplore is the world's first submersible robot for the power industry.

“You can’t be an expert in everything,” says ABB’s Craig Stiegemeier. “We work with 109 different designs of tap changers [a device found in power transformers] so this technology allows us to deliver all the information for the customer’s specific unit to that worker in the field.”

AR-equipped field devices are also useful even if the manufacturer sends service personnel out to the site.

“It amounts to ‘we’re coming, but show me what you have,’” says Kim Fenrich, Industrial Automation, Simulation Services Product Manager. “That way our people know what equipment to bring and what to expect when they get there.”

While remote collaboration might be the killer app for industrial AR and VR applications, safety is perhaps the most compelling benefit. At the same event two years ago, ABB introduced a research and development project that produced a small submersible robot equipped with high-definition video cameras to perform inspections of power transformers.

Instead of draining the insulating oil and sending a person into the transformer tank—a time-consuming and dangerous process—the technician pilots the robot using virtual-reality goggles to see what the robot sees. The whole process takes a few hours, compared to multiple days using the traditional approach. More importantly, it eliminates the need to send human workers into a dangerous, potentially deadly environment.

This application is now available as TXplore™, ABB’s transformer inspection service. A demo on the exhibit floor invited attendees to try their hand at piloting the sub through a mockup of a transformer submerged in a tank filled with oil. It takes some practice, especially if you use the goggles instead of just looking through the clear walls of the tank (transformer tanks are made of steel, after all).

These are just a couple of examples of the kinds of products and services that VR and AR make possible. Expect to see many more in the coming years as the underlying component technologies evolve.

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