Help from afar

Remote service and support sees an increase due to Covid-19


It was around this time last year that Shop Floor Lasers ran a feature on the benefits of remote service and support. We never suspected that in a few short months, the entire world, including the manufacturing industry, would be in a far different place.

In that story, titled Modern Maintenance, we interviewed representatives from Bystronic Inc., Cincinnati Inc., LVD Strippit and Trumpf Inc. to learn about their remote monitoring and servicing capabilities. Today, we revisit these four machine tool builders and ask them what effect the global pandemic has had on their people, their customers and their service approach.

View from the cockpit

Dan Cortez, the applications engineering manager at Bystronic, notes that Covid-19 has forced his department to be more efficient.

“In the past, we’d have a service tech that only went out and fixed things and an applications person that did the training and setup,” Cortez says. “Since the pandemic, we’ve begun cross-training people, so we can better utilize our available employees. Our goal is to make everyone a Jack or Jill of all trades, as this will ultimately allow us to better serve our customers.”

Bystronic’s ByCockpit provides digital, real-time information for sheet metal parts production.

Software product manager Ryan Weymouth adds that he and his colleagues at Bystronic have been fortunate in that there’ve been no furloughs or layoffs. This suggests that machine sales and support demands continue much as they were before Covid-19. What has changed is the urgency to keep equipment operational, supported by customers willing to take a more proactive approach to meeting that goal.

“Business has been very consistent, which is a good thing, but we’re also seeing that customers are more open to helping us help them,” Weymouth says. “Since well before dealing with the issues created by Covid-19, Bystronic has been able to resolve more than 75 percent of customer support requests remotely. Typically, a customer would call in and say, ‘Hey, I need help,’ and then turn on the remote support button. We would continue to work with them until the issue was resolved or a technician was requested or needed.

Remote support often requires nothing more than a smartphone or other connected device, as shown here with Cincinnati’s use of HelpLightning.

“Now, between travel restrictions and company policies limiting external visitors, many of our customers have expanded their use of these remote services to limit machine downtime and even train or cross-train personnel,” he adds. “At the same time, we’ve seen an uptick in customer interest for Observer and ByCockpit as shops increase remote capabilities. As a result, they’ve begun to realize its many benefits.”

ByCockpit, an app that provides real-time information for sheet metal parts production, gives users updates on key indicators on their machine’s performance, manufacturing efficiency and material stock. Observer, a passive remote monitoring system, also keeps users up to date about the operating status of their systems and informs them of how orders are progressing.

Remote help

Greg Wilson, director of service at Cincinnati, is seeing much the same thing. “We’ve been fielding additional remote service requests, although with more states opening and some easing of travel restrictions, that’s begun to taper off a bit,” he says. “Regardless, we’ve been using TeamViewer and HelpLightning for years during the initial troubleshooting process, and as these remote support tools continue to improve, we’re able to carry our diagnoses even further.”

TeamViewer, a great example of the Internet of Things, allows Cincinnati’s technicians to view and access a customer’s machine control. With it, technicians can see what the user sees to investigate, troubleshoot and solve issues from afar.

Cincinnati also uses HelpLightning as part of its remote support toolkit, a third-party platform that needs nothing more than a smartphone for the end user and an enterprise license for the OEM to guide users through increasingly complex repairs.

Augmented reality overlays the virtual atop the physical, making training and diagnostic activities much easier.

More sophisticated tools that leverage augmented and virtual reality glasses – though more comprehensive – are also more costly to deploy and more prone to damage in the field. Although HelpLightning supports many types of smart glasses, Cincinnati has chosen to let the technology mature. Like many in the machine tool industry, Cincinnati is waiting until the technology becomes more widespread.

“I’ve seen demonstrations with the HoloLens and other virtual/mixed reality glasses and tools and they’re incredible,” Wilson says. “But we haven’t yet been able to justify the cost versus the benefit, although we’re definitely looking in that direction.

“When you reach a point where you can cost-effectively deploy hardware and supporting software technologies to overlay an exploded wiring diagram onto the user’ field of view, for example, and where solid models of all the different mechanical and electrical components are available for use in an augmented reality environment – that’ll really be something,” he continues. “I know these technologies exist today, but development and deployment costs are still relatively expensive, especially when supporting legacy equipment that was not solid modeled when it was designed.”

Remote flexibility

When asked what effect Covid-19 has had on his department, Mathieu Vanbraekel, service director at LVD Strippit, explains that the pandemic may have made it more challenging to service equipment onsite, but it hasn’t changed the need for support.

“We’ve seen an increase in demand for both onsite visits and remote support,” he says. “Because manufacturing is considered essential, a number of our customers did not shut down, and quite a few of them actually changed what products they’re making as a result of the crisis. We also saw many of them running multiple shifts instead of just one, with a corresponding increased load on their equipment.”

Laser calibration of machine tools is one service function that will continue to require a trained technician to come onsite.

Servicing customers onsite during this crisis has become more complicated and time-consuming, he says, due to the restrictions in certain areas, the pre-screening procedures that are now a part of every service call, and the need to keep customers and service technicians safe. In areas of the country that are designated “hot spots,” LVD must carefully evaluate whether it’s safe to send a technician onsite, and sometimes, the answer is no.

LVD Strippit’s Teleservice can help users diagnose machine problems, reducing downtime and repair costs.

“When that’s the case, we use remote support tools such as our Teleservice remote support system and a new augmented reality system that we recently began using to help facilitate service calls,” says LVD Strippit’s national technical support manager, Damon Horton. “Pandemic or no, remote support is becoming more common, and we’ve realized that working remotely can be every bit as effective as an in-person visit. As both equipment suppliers and customers come to this conclusion, it will change how we work in the future and, I think, will make things easier and more efficient for both parties.”

Need assistance

Remote support services often eliminate the need for travel, an important consideration in today’s Covid-19 world.

“Looking back from January to April and May, we saw our usage of Trumpf Visual Assistance – which includes both our smart glasses and our phone application – more than double,” says Michael Otterbein, service manager at Trumpf. “It nearly doubled again during June and July. Fortunately, we’ve been working on these tools for quite some time now because it’s been a critical part of our support response.”

Trumpf Visual Assistance uses smart glasses and remote phone support to walk customers through troubleshooting and repair steps.

Granted, quadrupling the number of remote support calls is a direct result of countrywide travel restrictions, but it’s more than just Covid-19 that’s driving this increase. Service engineers and customers alike are growing more comfortable with telediagnostics while the technology itself is growing exponentially better.

“We can really drill in to figure out what the problem is and then utilize the visual assistants to solve it,” Otterbein says. “We might connect remotely to a machine and see that there is an error on the ILD board in the TruDisk and then ask the customer to check several connections there. In the past, we could only send them a picture of the board, where to locate it and explain what we wanted them to check. Now, it’s like we’re standing right there at the customer site, guiding them through the troubleshooting process. It’s much easier and more efficient for everyone involved.”

With any luck, we’ll have a Coronavirus vaccine early next year and this whole global pandemic will soon be behind us. But will machine service ever go back to what it was a year ago? None of the people interviewed for this article seem to think so.

“I think the industry has been trending in this direction for some time now, and the pandemic has only accelerated that trend,” Otterbein says. “The technology continues to expand and grow more capable, and everyone has begun to see the tremendous time and cost savings made possible by remote service tools. From Trumpf’s side, remote services are something we have been developing for a long time, they are here to stay and we are here to continue pushing them forward.”

Bystronic Inc.

Cincinnati Inc.

LVD Strippit

Trumpf Inc.

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