Insights From The Blog

Can AR and VR Change the Energy and Utilities Industries?

When we think of utility companies – water, gas, and electric – we tend to consider them to be solid and dependable organisations who invisibly deliver the basic products that we need for our lifestyles. They are so entrenched in our everyday lives that we don’t even have to think about them, and simply expect the products that they supply to continue gushing forth from taps and electrical supplies. We only miss them when they are not there or fail to come out on demand, and that is pretty infrequent.

But the reality is that the infrastructure that utilities use is aging and in a poor state of repair. The piping that delivers our water and gas, and the cabling that transports electricity from the power station to our homes has seen better days and needs to be cared for, because replacement isn’t happening any time soon. And that leads to another problem that is peculiar to the utility industries; the need for specialist knowledge that is quite unlike anything from other industries.

That wouldn’t be so much of a bad thing, were it not for the fact that all three utility industries see the highest incidence of early retirement than any other. These are industries that pay well, but have a significantly higher level of stress associated with them. Their employees enjoy the money the industries attract, but can’t wait to get out of them. The utility industries are haemorrhaging talent, and new operatives to take their place can’t be trained fast enough. It is in danger of becoming a perfect storm for failure, but the downward spiral might just be broken if we can train new employees quickly, and for that, industry leaders are turning to VR and its derivatives.

The power-generation industry – and to a lesser extent the water supply system – is an inherently dangerous business, and one where there are few second chances if something goes wrong. But these systems are also highly complex and tracing particular parts of them requires complex drawings, diagrams and system checks before you can even think about isolating any particular part or section for working on. In many cases it becomes a problem of shutting down larger sections of a system, simply because the operator may be unsure which part needs intervention, and replacing or reworking that entire area. Costly, inefficient, and potentially dangerous, dealing with utility systems in such a haphazard way is outdated, but what is the alternative? How do we best utilise the dwindling number of highly trained staff in the most effective and efficient way?

Imagine then, having a detailed and accurate ‘map’ of the system be it electrical, mains water, or even the highly complex steam system behind a nuclear reactor right in front of your eyes as a 3D model, and being constantly updated as the engineer moves along it. A fully-detailed representation which shows the flow of electricity, water or steam, and demonstrates exactly where each component is as well as showing what is supposed to be happening in the cables and pipes, helping identify where problems could lie. VR and AR equipment is now of such high resolution that storing and displaying 3D models as an overlay is not a problem, and engineers can maximise their hard-won knowledge to find and resolve almost any problem.

Being able to pinpoint where a problem is likely to be with high confidence is a major step forward in the repair and update of these behemothic systems, but XR devices can offer other services too, with it likely to become a major factor in training programs. Part of the issue with preparing new recruits for such industries is the need for them to use a degree of imagination in the flow of water or electricity. XR can help by allowing trainees to visualise this flow and significantly reduce the possibility of accidents happening.

Supplying training materials online and via XR means that trainees can access a wide range of immersive materials and activities at a time that is convenient to them. This makes it ideal for workers already in the industry who want to either boost their knowledge or prepare for a more advanced role and need to take on extra training. XR is becoming increasingly popular, forward technology that allows students to get together in a virtual world and learn together, and even carry out sophisticated training. And when carrying out training as complex, difficult, and crucial to get right as with high pressure water or electricity, anything that can make it easier has got to be a good thing.

But utilities are also companies that have a huge amount of customer input in the form of account enquiries from new and existing customers, and that can include equipment set-up and fault issues. XR can enable experts to connect with the customer and understand their problems and equipment issues, and offer fast solutions, far better than trying to do so via a simple telephone conversation. The complexity of the equipment used by utility companies, coupled with the inherent danger that they represent mean that suitably trained and qualified staff have to attend to such calls, and that can be time consuming and costly. Connecting with customers via XR lowers contact time, increases efficiency, and ultimately saves money, and that could lead to lower energy and water bills – something that we are all keen on!