Virtual capabilities change practices for processing operations

Swagelok Corporation

By Brian Van Valkenburg, Senior Manger Field Services and Training, Swagelok Company
Tuesday, 10 May, 2022

Virtual capabilities change practices for processing operations

Virtual site visits and training courses bring remote expertise to plants.

Connecting distant teams to solve local site issues at facilities has always presented logistical challenges. How can the team provide timely remote feedback? How soon can a full team of experts be onsite to address the issue? The same challenges have faced facilities as they collaborate with external suppliers providing services that have commonly required onsite visits.

As virtual technology has become more advanced, companies are starting to leverage these capabilities to allow their teams to connect from different locations more effectively. Whether companies need field engineering surveys or proper training for their personnel, virtual technology is allowing them to accomplish these goals with lower costs and fewer scheduling conflicts. Not surprisingly, virtual site visits and training programs are becoming essential tools in helping facilities run more efficiently and effectively.

Virtual field engineering visits

Before virtual technology became popular, field engineering visits to plants required a significant amount of time and expense. A group of field engineers would visit a site to evaluate various systems and equipment and provide multiple perspectives on their operation. Bringing multiple engineers to the facility not only resulted in significant travel expenses but also disruptions to the normal work of a facility.

During a virtual visit, only one field engineer is required to be onsite. Equipped with an augmented reality (AR) collaboration headset, that engineer can connect with other engineers around the world. This team of multiple engineers can then conduct a thorough evaluation of equipment and areas of concern throughout the facility just as they would if they were onsite inspecting the applications personally. The use of AR headsets has proven to provide the same level of value to organisations as onsite visits — and sometimes even better, as world-class experts may be able to be present on a virtual visit when they wouldn’t normally have been able to be at the facility for an in-person visit.

A field engineer wearing an AR headset inspects critical equipment at a chemical plant with the help of an engineering team watching a livestream video and providing remote support.

A field engineer wearing an AR headset inspects critical equipment at a chemical plant with the help of an engineering team watching a livestream video and providing remote support.

If field engineering teams are unable to visit a location to help with system troubleshooting and design challenges, or other matters, a remote format can be a welcome option. Though ideally there would be at least one field engineer onsite, it is also possible for facilities to use the AR headsets themselves, recording video while speaking with remote field engineers who provide real-time feedback. No matter how the virtual technology is deployed, virtual site visits allow facilities to minimise the amount of time their system issues go undiagnosed or unaddressed, while minimising travel-related costs and coordination of time.

Technology drives quality and efficiency

Though the importance of virtual site visits became even more critical as COVID-19 made onsite visits more difficult, the ongoing integration of AR technology has implications far beyond the pandemic. Being able to access worldwide experts virtually means troubleshooting capabilities can be broadened and consultations can perhaps be made available around the clock.

In addition, virtual site visits are ideal in situations in which in-person visits are difficult to manage, such as remote locations, offshore environments or other areas of restricted access. And since virtual visits are typically recorded, it allows field engineers to return to a visit using images and video to refresh their memories and ensure they do not miss anything.

The integration of AR technology into field engineering visits allows for faster deployment of resources and provides plants with access to a wider range of experts because the right specialists can be matched with the right challenges. Virtual visits also allow specialists to see the same thing at once without having to cycle specialists in and out of confined spaces. It also allows immediate collaboration between multiple experts to diagnose problems in real time.

Finally, virtual evaluations are also showing promise for getting end users quick recommendations to improve their facilities and systems — sometimes even the same day — thanks to the high level of collaboration the headsets enable.

During a virtual evaluation, the on-site engineer can share photos and videos with remote colleagues in real time so everyone can brainstorm solutions as a connected team.

During a virtual evaluation, the on-site engineer can share photos and videos with remote colleagues in real time so everyone can brainstorm solutions as a connected team.

Additional applications for virtual visit technology

Virtual visit technology is not limited to providing field engineering visits. Companies can use the headsets for:

  • Virtual commissioning of systems and advising on the construction and testing of equipment: The AR headsets allow experts to be virtually present to provide oversight during key stages in the implementation of new facility systems, helping facilities avoid errors and perform optimised system integrations. Remote viewing also allows the organisation’s executives to experience processes they would not usually be able to witness.
  • Virtual witnessing of key procurement processes: Compliance teams can offer plants the opportunity to witness manufacturing and shipping practices that would usually require an onsite visit.
  • Virtual customer visits to manufacturing and fulfilment centres: End users can also meet the people and see the processes behind the products and services they are purchasing, allowing them to take a tour of production facilities with an onsite tour guide.

Hosting virtual facility tours alongside relevant business meetings means manufacturers can provide the full experience of visiting their headquarters without requiring travel. It also allows manufacturers to reach more customers at once and expands the ability to meet with customers from around the world.

Virtual technology enables training

The expense and difficulty of travelling have not stopped essential work from continuing, which means training must continue as well. As an example, one of Australia’s leading gas suppliers, which is focused on safely and sustainably developing natural gas resources to power industries and households around the country, recently faced the issue of how to continue its critical training programs when in-person meetings were restricted.

The solution was to create an all-virtual training program that would allow employees to learn about proper safety protocols at their facilities without all gathering in person. Such virtual training programs offer a number of potential opportunities.

Enhancing safety

Focusing employees’ attention on even the most basic skills can be a welcome refresher to enhance their abilities and ensure they are up to speed and trained on the latest installation methods and operating procedures. That may mean incorporating specialised training programs into a facility’s normal activities, with the best programs featuring both practical and written assessments to engage trainees. Refreshing employees’ critical skills can reinforce best practices, helping facilities enhance safety across their operations. Such was the case for the Australian company, which deployed an extensive remote training program focused on tube fitting installation, inspection and tube bending to reduce the likelihood of loss of containment incidents — and thereby improve safety — at its five natural gas and LNG operations throughout the country.

Improving employee engagement

Taking the time to teach new skills and refresh old ones is an engaging experience for employees, even when training is done virtually. The key is to ensure the training is relevant to the employee’s role at the company and can help them improve outcomes in their daily jobs, while also offering room to grow and thrive in both their current and future roles.

Increasing flexibility

Moving to a virtual training model also introduces flexibility for employees, the benefits of which can include:

  • Smaller class sizes with greater opportunity for trainees to ask questions and build rapport with the instructor.
  • Attendance flexibility, as trainees can attend sessions on mobile devices and laptops either from their facilities or their own homes.
  • A greater blend of learning modes, which may include formal instruction and practical, hands-on training.
Saving money

Companies may also realise significant cost savings from virtual training — mainly because they no longer need to accommodate trainers onsite. This factor can help to significantly reduce per-trainee costs, while also allowing for the training to have a broader reach.

Scaling rapidly

To capitalise on growth potential, organisations must be able to quickly train staff with the skills required to implement new systems and operating procedures. Virtual training programs can help companies accomplish those training imperatives with greater flexibility and cost savings.

What the virtual revolution means for the future

As virtual meetings become the norm for both site visits and training, it is likely the technology will proliferate. Virtual site visits allow companies to get more detailed guidance on their facilities and systems. Specific experts can be accessed to provide additional expertise to site inspections and troubleshooting activities. In addition, virtual technology increases the ability of all parties to collaborate in real time, so problems do not go undiagnosed or uncorrected. The ability to solve problems more quickly saves downtime and repair costs in the process.

In addition, as corporations return to a ‘new normal’ during the continued pandemic, the advantages of holding virtual training sessions will remain. Whether it is providing flexibility to employees or saving costs for corporations, virtual training will offer opportunities for companies to reach a greater number of employees in a cost-effective manner.

Top image credit: ©

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