Using AR to Keep the Temporary Lights On, with Aggreko’s Walter Davis

Aggreko’s in the business of temporary power – you need an outdoor installation set up for electricity? They’re who to call. But that means that the less time to train, the better. Walter Davis explains how AR is helping trim some time off a new employee’s intake.

Alan: Hey, everybody, welcome to the XR for Business podcast with your host, Alan Smithson. Today, we’re speaking with Walter Davis, head of talent and learning technology at Aggreko. We’ll be learning about how they’re using XR to train technicians and speed up their time to competency, for new and existing employees. All that and more on the XR for Business podcast.

Walter, welcome to the show.

Walter: Thanks, Alan. Glad to be here.

Alan: Really excited. Why don’t you start by telling us your role at Aggreko and how you started working in XR in this role?

I think first thing to do might help to paint a picture of maybe what Aggreko does, which will help in then showing how we’re applying augmented reality to our services. So, Aggreko is the largest provider of temporary power and cooling solutions. We work in over 100 countries and we power things like Super Bowl here in the US, which many of you might know, or the Olympics that are coming up in Japan. That’s another project we’re doing. We also work everywhere, from remote parts of Africa, to powering up a data center that needs some backup power. So we’re sort of everywhere in the background, if you would. Just ensuring that major events and operations run smoothly. And with that, obviously, we need to ensure that we are providing an expert service and minimize any potential downtime. We need to have expert staff to support that.

Alan: So basically, if the lights stay on, you guys are there.

Walter: Exactly. That’s a great way of putting it. We make it a point to ensure that we have a highly reliable service.

Alan: So I was reading, Aggreko specializes in seven key areas, oil and gas, manufacturing, mining, petrochemicals, construction. And then events, the live events thing almost seems like an add-on to this, but it seems to fit perfectly.

Walter: It does, yeah. So events are really what we’re known for, right? I mean, that’s where we will pop up on occasion. Actually, I could say that we are actually in one– we’re in a recent country music video in the background, because we are powering the stage that they recorded the music video at. But yeah, like I said, keeping the lights on, making sure that entertainment can happen, events can happen, and everybody has a comfortable experience.

Alan: So how does VR/AR/XR relate to temporary power?

Walter: With the nature of our business — as we operate in over 100 countries — we operate very broadly but very agilely. And one of the challenges that we tend to sometimes have is ensuring that we can bring new hires and products together really in that introductory period of time, when someone is just joining the organization. We don’t always necessarily have every type of fleet available for them to familiarize themselves with and educate themselves on, to start developing those competencies. And where we’re seeing AR in particular, is in allowing those individuals to gain that knowledge really right when they join the organization. They’re able to go through an immersive experience in full scale, so as if the product was right in front of them. Going– both familiarizing themselves with the key components and aspects of the product, but also going through a key service procedures that they might be performing in the field, whether it’s locking out the equipment or going through an A service. This opens up that avenue for us to ensure that they can get those experiences and get that knowledge really right when they come into the organization.

Alan: A training module, then.

Walter: It is, yeah. That’s where we started. So hence my background, as looking after the talent learning technologies. So our focus is on upskilling the folks in the first instance. With that, though, we are exploring other avenues all throughout there. I was in Glasgow, in the UK here for the last two weeks. And I’ve met with our product design team, who are also really starting to leverage some of this technology in the product design aspects, our operations team as well, out in the fields. So we’re seeing it grow. I think learning we’ve started a little earlier than others. So we’re a little further ahead. But the application of the technology is starting to spread throughout the organization.

Alan: So can you walk us through what the AR experience looks like and feels like for a new employee?

Walter: Sure. So we’ve developed the experience primarily for use on mobile devices, which is one of the reasons why we lean towards augmented reality versus some of the others, was the sheer scale that you can deploy AR out within your existing infrastructure. So because we could leverage our mobile phones, that allows us to deploy this app, to — you could say — to the employees’ mobile devices. And then once they’re in the app, they’ll open it up. They’ll choose an experience that they’d like to go through. So at the moment, we have it by product, so they’ll pick that product. Then once they’ve opened it, it’s going to ask them to place the product. So that’s going to be the first activity. They’re going to look for a space to place this full scale product. And some of our products can be fairly large. So they’ll first place it in an open area that they have. And then the first thing that is going to happen, is they’re gonna get a screen that’s going to ask them to do a walk-around. So a walk-around is something that we’ve added to the introduction of the experiences as we’re starting to gain more familiarity with augmented reality. And the walk-around helps us ensure that they’re placing this experience in a safe working area. So we show them a video of how to do a walk-around, where it shows you walking around the equipment, checking for any objects on the ground, making sure that it’s not protruding halfway through a wall that might be nearby or something, that you have the space you need to fully walk around the product safely.

Alan: They’re big, though, right? Like, they’re the size of a container ship kind of thing.

Walter: Yeah. So it could be 20 feet long — maybe longer — and 10 feet or so high. So this is very large–

Alan: That’s not something you’re going to be dropping in your living room.

Walter: No, not something you’d be dropping in your living room. And we lean to the full scale option simply to give that immersiveness, and give that replication of that real life experience. While we did try out a few other scales, we found that just having that full scale is just that additional added value of “it’s really what you’re going to see when you do come across that real product.” And it’s going to be in the same way, it’s gonna be the same positions. There’s no compromise. So then after you do your walk-around, you’ve ensured that you’ve placed this object in a safe area to work. You’ll get a couple of options to go through and perform different activities. So one of the first activities that people will learn to perform is LOTO, so learning how to Lock Out and Tag Out a piece of equipment. So they’ll go through the equipment, go through LOTO — isolating the battery and these other sort of technical elements — to ensure that the equipment is safe to work on. And then after that, they can go through other activities, whether it’s product introduction, where you’ll learn all the key features and components of the product, or you’ll have an option to jump in and do any of the service procedures like oil changes, fuel filter changes, sort of maintenance/repair procedures, if you would. Throughout those procedures what we’re doing as well is– so as this is a learning experience, they’ll go through a couple of sections and then after each section there’ll be a Q&A element to sort of check their knowledge and ensure that they’ve– as they’re going through it, that they’re understanding some of the elements, some of the things that are happening. Some of the other things that we call out along the way are key safety elements. If there’s something that they need to be aware of in that particular environment, such as recycling, used oil, or if there’s a key electrical hazard or whatever, we call those elements out as well along the process. And then after they finish it up — it’s almost literally as quick as I’ve talked you through it, I mean, obviously takes a little bit longer when you have it placed out in reality — but then after they’ve finished up the activity and they’ve — and again, this is a full scale model — so when they are going through, for example, an A service, some of those activities are on the other side. So they will literally have to physically walk around that product and go to the other side of the equipment, and do the other activities that are on the other side. One of the things we’ve implemented to direct people to different areas is our guide, so a guide will pop up, it’ll sort of highlight a path for them to walk around and they’ll walk around the other side to perform that task. After they finish now these learning components — you could say for that product — they’ve basically finished their AR experience, and gained that familiarization that they wouldn’t have normally been able to have without having the product physically in front of them.

Alan: How are you measuring success of this? Is it just completion, or is it time to completion, or is it time to mastery? What are your reference points for KPIs or key performance indicators, and what kind of data you’re collecting about learners?

Walter: Yeah. So in the first instance, one of the first things that we’d focused on was equipment downtime. It can be costly to move the product, have these products sitting in a learning center or sitting at a at a depot, rather than being with a customer. So that was one financial aspect that we looked at, was the cost of having these products sit and be unavailable for use on a customer site. And depending on the product, they’ll have a slightly different financial metric. On the other side, we know that there’s– I think everyone’s aware of obviously there’s the travel, and other elements as you’re using this technology. These introductory elements currently before AR, as they were being delivered, were being delivered in a classroom. So having these components now delivered on as a self-paced module in their own time is freeing up up to half a day, a day of training that would have happened in the classroom. And what that do– we’re not portraying that — you could say — as a reduction in classroom time. But what we are saying is we can take now this half a day to day of training and focus it on a higher level skill of training. So when they’re coming to the classroom, we’re not focusing so much on familiarizing them with the product, giving them an introduction on how that product works, how you can perform some of these basic services. We’re focusing more on the expert pieces — if you were — more complex activities. And just that is allowing us to have a higher level of knowledge by the end of this process. We’re focusing on activities we would have normally not been able to do, or required to fly or bring someone in through a separate training instance or a separate session.

Alan: Have you experimented with head-worn devices? And is there a market difference between using a mobile phone and a head-worn device that you’ve seen?

Walter: We are experimenting at the moment with the head-worn devices. We have a Hololens 2, which are not easy to come by these days. So we have received one of those. And we’re looking at some of its application in the classroom. What I would say with the head-worn devices is, yeah, you definitely have a slightly more immersive experience than you would have had with the phone. I guess the downside of that, obviously, with the head-worn devices at the moment is the scalability of it, requiring everyone to have a head-worn device. Where we see the head-worn devices applying — as far as into those learning scenarios — are really once we get to more of the multiplayer activities. So what we’re looking at right now is how can we– say we were to bring a couple of Hololenses into the classroom. One of the pieces we’re looking at is, well, how can we ensure that everybody who’s wearing one of those Hololenses is looking at the exact same thing, at the at the exact same time? Currently, obviously, we’ve deployed this as a self-paced element. So each person is looking at that experience from their own point of view. One person may be on task five or the other one might be on seven or eight. Where we’re seeing the Hololens — or even those head-worn devices — adding value are for some of these group activities, where we can bring someone through and bring everyone through an experience at the same time, and in that same flow. So you’re really starting to augment almost an instructor based learning, if you would. Add in the remote aspect to that, then I think you’d have the future of virtual conference training, if you would, that web-based virtual training.

Alan: Have you guys started to look at collaboration platforms, things like Meet In VR, or Spatial, or things like that?

Walter: We have started to look at a couple. I would say we haven’t taken them necessarily as serious as of yet. We’re really more in the exploratory, if you would, looking at a couple of different providers. From that conferencing aspect, from our point of view, we’re always looking at, “Well, how can we still leverage that as well for that knowledge transfer piece, whether it’s Spatial or Future Visual or any of these others?” But now where we’re– I’d say that’s an area we aren’t as far along, especially when I compare other avenues, like I said, where we’re looking at leveraging augment reality for use in field operations or product design or learning. I think collaboration is the avenue that we haven’t explored as far as others. But I think that’s definitely the direction of travel. I think everyone’s– we’re all at the moment in this, you could say single person experience, more or less. And I think once you get into that multi-person experiences, where you’re really going to start to see that ROI jump even higher than it already is.

Alan: What other types of this technology, or what other aspects of this technology are you investigating? What have you seen that excites you?

Walter: Yeah. I mean, we’ve we’ve touched on it already. The multiplayer is really the piece that I think is going to get really exciting. It’s when you can bring people together from all around the world and into these sort of shared experiences. I mean, I know you can already do that really well with a lot of different platforms in VR. What I’d love to see is how we can bring that across those technologies — where it doesn’t matter if you’re in VR, AR, MR, however you want to– whatever R you want to use — that you can be together and go through an experience together. Have those complex conversations, solving problems, sharing knowledge, and just really taking full advantage of this technology that allows us to immerse ourselves in conversations — if you would — and immerse ourselves in creativity, regardless of borders and distance, you could say. So I think that the multiplayer is really the one that I’m really anxious to see grow and mature really across the platforms.

Alan: It seems like this community is really opening up to help each other. What are some of the tips that you would give to a new company that wants to start deploying this technology for use case?

Walter: I know a lot of companies I think of have looked at this technology, and I know quite a few folks who struggled to get out of the pilot purgatory. But one of the things that I would recommend is, once you do get that pilot and get that initial company centric experience– because what I have found is, although you could have an amazing example of how this can apply, unless it’s really ticking all the boxes for your organization or even has a flavor of what goes on in your own organization, the conversation still can be challenging. And I’ll even give you an example. So if even– if I’ve have an example of how to go through a service on X product, if it’s not necessarily related to our industry, it can sometimes be challenging to portray it, how that would impact our flow, and the training on actually our products, and how it can be used in that way. What I have found is that the things I think have helped us get through this is focusing quickly on getting an example of one of our products up and going, and then I think it’s a matter of– I like the phrase “working out loud”. If you have any opportunities in your organization to work out loud on tools, like we use some of the Microsoft tools here internally, like Microsoft Teams and Yammer. I’d recommend sharing those successes as early on, getting people excited, trying to build up the crowd, if you would. And I’d say one of the things — which I probably myself even could’ve done a little quicker — is then once you’ve built up that initial case, you’ve got a solid use case, ROI, and an example is getting in front of the right stakeholders and start to build in your partners and getting them committed in supporting you. What I found is there has not been any shortcoming of support for the technology. It’s just a matter of getting it in front of the right people, getting them familiar with it, getting them introduced, and having the right kind of example that resonates with your business. So get a company centric example, work out loud, and then get it in front those stakeholders as soon as you can so you have a partner to go with you along that journey.

Alan: Pretty sage advice, my friend. What problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technologies?

Walter: Ooh, yeah. So I think that if I had to pick a problem that I’d like to see solved, it would be around reducing the time to maturity to leverage new products to solve some of the environmental energy challenges that we have in the world. I mean, it’s an area that obviously here we take quite seriously. We have battery storage and other elements that we’re bringing out. And I’d really love to see this technology leveraged to bring those solutions out even quicker, reduce their time to market and get that design going even quicker. I think that just in the environmental elements, I think there’s a lot of opportunities in thinking differently, using this kind of technology to visualize things we might not have been able to visualize before, look at things that we’ve not been able to see before.

Alan: Interesting that the value chain that XR brings crosses the entire organization. So from a collaboration of design, being able to bring in a model of a new product, collaborate with people around the world — so you’re saving flights, not having to fly people around, that they can collaborate together in a virtual space — then that same asset can be used to train new employees without having to have them travel around. And you can bring the training to them instead of them to the training. And then the last part, you can actually now use the exact same assets that you did for design and training, and provide that to your marketing teams. And they can then bring these equipment pieces to your customers wherever they are, without having to travel or fly the giant pieces of machinery around. So you have this use case that is the same, yet different stakeholders right across the value chain of the organization.

Walter: That’s exactly right. And I think that’s definitely something that we’re seeing. I mentioned that I’d been in the UK here a couple of weeks, for the last two weeks, and we’ve been working together on using this technology to solve challenges within our particular areas. But one of the things I think that we realized even more was how we can leverage this technology both across our streams, and save time and money across our streams by putting in the right processes upstream, and seeing some of those values trickle downstream. I’ll give me an example: by having higher quality CAD and higher quality designs done over in the product design area, that’s going to trickle down to learning, it’s going to trickle down to field ops, and add even more value in the experiences we’re creating. The experiences we’re creating in learning can be leveraged as knowledge support and stuff in the field. So when you need it, you can reuse some of those experiences in the moment you need it. So, as you mentioned, I think we’re really just replacing the 2D experience and text based knowledge that we have, and we’re just starting to just bring that knowledge into the world. And and with that, we’re seeing that it applies in a lot of the same ways that it did when it was on the screen, and on a website, and in these other places. It’s really just fascinating and amazing to see this technology evolve and move and just change the way we work.

Alan: With that, I want to say thank you, Walter Davis, head of talent and learning technology from Aggreko. Thank you again so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be on this podcast and share your experiences with the world.

Walter: Thank you. And I appreciate all the work you and the team are doing. So thank you very much for having me.

Alan: It’s our pleasure.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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