If you've ever tried typing while talking to technical support with the phone crammed between ear and shoulder, then you know the meaning of frustration. Now imagine doing that upside down inside an airplane wing while juggling wires, crimps and a schematic printout. For some field engineers, that sort of thing is an everyday occurrence, so IBM in collaboration with the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in the UK is developing a mobile maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) prototype robot. It's a combination of a smartphone app and a camera/projector mounted on a robot arm, that allows supervisors and experts to have a more active presence on the job.
Field engineers often find themselves working in unfamiliar surroundings or on tasks that aren’t routine. They have to make sure they’re in the right location, find the equipment, make sure they have the right task sheet, and that they’re carrying out the job correctly. In the old days, this meant carrying a stack of clipboards and manuals while talking to a supervisor over the phone. Not surprisingly, this was not a very efficient arrangement – especially when the engineer needed both hands free and couldn’t glance back at his notes. The latter was even worse if the engineer was wearing special glasses, such as magnifiers.
In recent years, there have been a number of solutions put forward. These have included things like replacing the paperwork with tablets, hand-held cameras to send back images to supervisors and special headsets for hands-free viewing of computer readouts. Unfortunately, these all put most of the burden on the field engineer while the supervisor was still left with either being fed information or playing a game of “hot and cold” to get the engineer to look at the right bit.
The IBM MRO approach is to provide the supervisor with a more active role through a combination of augmented reality and robotics. With MRO, the supervisor can follow the engineer’s location using a smartphone and GPS. Once on site, the phone, a bit of augmented reality and QR codes help lead the engineer to where he’s supposed to be. The phone also shows where other engineers are and how to find safety equipment or first aid boxes.
So far, all this sounds like another smartphone app, but the clever bit is that the MRO uses a camera and a small projector mounted on the end of a robotic arm. It’s a bit like those telepresence robots used in hospitals to bring doctors to the patient, but instead of being a face on a screen, the MRO arm allows the supervisor to take an active part. An expert can use the arm to watch what’s going on, throw out a pointer to draw attention to an area or even project information such as assembly instructions, CAD images or freehand sketches.
According to Richard Lanyon-Hogg, IBM Technical Director for the industrial sector, “The MRO prototype brings together two innovative IBM technologies, developed in our European research labs in Hursley and Haifa, into a single solution for our clients. It offers manufacturers the opportunity to lower their costs, provide just-in-time knowledge transfer and reduce the personal risk to engineers working in difficult environments.”
IBM says that using the robot arm also allows supervisors and experts to receive a more stable video image that they can control. In addition, it provides a visual/audio trail to help identify problems and improve efficiency.
A working version of the system has been installed at the AMRC's Diamond Jubilee Knowledge Transfer Centre.
The video below highlights the IBM MRO system.