As we continue our series of features looking at the emerging technologies that could appear in the not so distant future we turn our attention to NFC and, perhaps the most futuristic of all, 3D printing.
Near Field Communications
If the falling price of drones makes for a compelling argument for their inclusion in the future field engineer's tool kit, then the next item on this list is pretty much a no-brainer for a large number of Field service organisations.
That is NFC or near field communication tags.
NFC tags can be bought for as little as 30p per tag and with most modern Android and Windows smartphones and tablets supporting NFC communication they can be a very cheap means of making the field engineers workflow that much smoother.
Basically an NFC tag can be written to trigger an action on a device by simply tapping it against the tag.[quote float="left"]In theory, pretty much any action your engineer needs to take on an app can be incorporated into the script for a NFC tag.
A couple of quick examples…
A tag in the engineer's van could be written so that when the engineer places his smartphone against it, it opens up a dedicated mobile workforce app and logs his journey start time, plus also opens up a routing app such as Google Maps or TomTom.
The tag can also be written to include a toggle feature so when the engineer completes his journey he can again tap the tag with his device and this could log his journey end time, close his routing software, and open up the job details in his dedicated mobile workforce app.
Finally an NFC tag could be placed on the device which contains the notes of any previous engineer visits. This quick overview could be very useful in giving the engineer quick and easy access to the devices history and again similarly when the engineer updates his notes on the maintenance work he has carried our it is possible for him to include this information on the tag ready for the next engineer all with a simple tap.
And these are just three very simple ideas: in theory, pretty much any action your engineer needs to take on an app can be incorporated into the script for a NFC tag. There are also a number of apps that make the process of writing actions into a tag very simple for the lay person to do.
As I mentioned earlier the hallmark of a good technology is the ability to simplify our workflow and again NFC certainly ticks these boxes and given its low cost is another technology I think is worth considering when we look at how we can further empower our engineers.
The next item on my brief list is for me the most exciting and certainly the one that has the most futuristic feel about it. That is 3D printing.
Whilst we haven’t quite yet got to the point where we can instantly conjure up an earl grey tea hot like Jean Luc Picard might, the printers are still able to create physical 3D products from seemingly out of nothing just like the replicator devices seen in Star Trek.
Instead of an engineer having to delay a repair until the right part is sent to the site he could simply head out to the back of the van and print the part on site. First time fix rates would be dramatically improved.
However, 3D printing isn’t a particularly new concept, it actually dates back to the early eighties. So the devices we are seeing today are the product of over 30 years' worth of refinement.
This has resulted in 3D printed parts becoming robust enough and reliable enough to be used by companies such as Ford, General Electric and Boeing. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for example, has over 30 3D printed parts; there are Leap jets and RAF Tornadoes flying around with 3D printed parts; and recently Ford printed their 500,000th 3D printed part – an engine cover for a Ford Mustang.
The fact is, 3D printed parts are out there being used more than we might think.
At the same time consumer 3D printers, much smaller and more mobile devices are becoming more readily available and at much more accessible costs.
Companies such as MakerBot and Stratysys are straddling both sides of this growing market. Is it that big a leap to envisage a meeting of these two approaches - that is, a device with the smaller more mobile size of a consumer device capable of delivering industrial grade 3D printed parts?
When we consider the potential widespread use of the devices surely not.
Imagine it… instead of an engineer diagnosing the issue but having to delay a repair until the right part is sent to the site he could simply head out to the back of the van and print the part on site. First time fix rates would be dramatically improved.
Then there is also the benefit of not having to have stock parts kept in an engineer's van.
By removing this need a company would be able to instantly improve their cash position on their P&L as well as avoid the danger of potential loss of stock through theft.
Whilst 3D printing hasn’t quite reached this standard as yet, given the competitive nature of this growing industry and the potential gains it is hugely feasible that such developments may be made within the next five years. So I’d firmly put this into the technology-to-watch-closely category.
Look out for the final part in this series where we look at perhaps the biggest potential game changer field service companies must embrace…