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Virtually the next step in machine maintenance

01 July 2019

George Walker explains how virtual reality could redefine industrial maintenance.

Industrial maintenance can be a costly, time-consuming process, but it is also one that is required if a plant’s systems are to remain effective, efficient and even operational. For the food industry, even a momentary period of downtime can result in lost production. 

Yogurt production lines, for example, must ensure that produce is kept at certain temperatures and handled in a certain time period to minimise the risk of spoilage. Downtime due to faulty or ineffective systems can result in an entire batch needing to be disposed of, often to the tune of thousands of pounds in lost profit.

It is for this reason that many plants have made improving the quality of maintenance a priority, with increased adoption of preventive or predictive maintenance practices.

However, while incorporating predictive maintenance functionality into industrial automation systems is valuable in minimising the frequency of maintenance, there will be times when a maintenance engineer must head out to repair a system. Depending on the role of the equipment requiring maintenance and the nature of the maintenance itself, this period of planned downtime can still have a negative impact on production.

Valuable tools
It’s here that technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are proving to be valuable tools in helping maintenance engineers repair equipment and systems faster and more effectively than ever before. Maintenance staff can use a VR headset – such as Microsoft HoloLens – or even just their mobile phones to see an augmented view of equipment, highlighting the performance data of individual components and the best way of accessing them.

For example, let’s say that a dairy plant’s manufacturing execution system (MES) highlights that a rotary evaporator, used to standardise the dry matter of milk in the early production stages, requires maintenance. As the evaporator consists of several components, a maintenance engineer could use AR to see a virtual representation of the components in the evaporator and identify which needs attending to.

This is only possible if the AR application can access the real-time operational data from the evaporator. In this instance, the engineer could use the AR functionality of PTC’s ThingWorx 8 industrial internet of things (IIoT) platform, as provided by Novotek. 

The value of AR in food machinery maintenance extends beyond the dairy sector to to any segment that features high levels of automation. Meat processing plants, for example, can contain any number of complex systems, from deboning equipment to mincing machines, that could prove challenging for an engineer to maintain efficiently. By using AR to pick out the problem part and the best means of accessing it, this process can be substantially sped up to reduce the financial impact of sudden downtime.

By using a purpose-built AR application, the engineer can view real time system data from the ThingWorx IIoT platform and see which components are performing inefficiently. In this case, it could be that the evaporator’s compressor requires lubrication. The engineer can then resolve this in the least disruptive way possible, minimising the impact that necessary maintenance has on production.

With this, we can see why VR and AR are far more than quirky technologies for industrial businesses. If used properly alongside an IIoT platform that supports predictive maintenance, they can help plant managers achieve the next level of industrial maintenance efficiency, where the unavoidable downtime associated with maintenance can be minimised to mere moments.

George Walker is managing director of Novotek UK and Ireland.


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