From the frontlines of pandemic-fueled AR adoption: Interview with Aggreko's Walter Davis

Written BY

Emily Friedman

July 15, 2021

I recently had the opportunity to interview Walter Davis, Global Learning Technologies Manager at Aggreko, about expanding the use of augmented reality in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. Get first-hand insight into enterprise adoption challenges, including change management, and find out how augmented reality became a safety certification standard at Aggreko below! Don't miss Walter speaking at EWTS 2021 this October online!

Emily: To begin, could you provide us with a little background on yourself and your career? What does your job entail and what was your first encounter with AR/VR?

Walter: Well, I’m a U.S. Army veteran (not sure how far back you want me to go). I studied engineering IT and have a degree in IT Project Management. I really started working in the IT sector on larger projects overseas, so while I was in Germany I worked on projects around ULD tracking technology and systems at Lufthansa. I got into the learning space when I moved over to Raytheon (also in Germany). While there, I worked with a number of large brands, including NATO, the Australian Navy, Harley Davidson, GM and most everyone in the automotive sector at some point in time.

I think my first encounter with what we were calling immersive tech at the time (though I wouldn’t say it was fully VR as we know it now) was when we were designing training that was somewhat like a third-person shooter environment, where you’re immersing someone into an on-site digital experience, allowing you to simulate activities that weren’t feasible at the physical location or really difficult to replicate.

The first time I actually put on a VR headset myself wasn’t for work but at an arcade in Las Vegas, probably 10+ years ago. It was one of those full stationary sets with a headset hanging overhead. Everything about the hardware was large and robust. You could look around, but the experience wasn’t as realistic as it is nowadays—more of a Tron-like environment with a bunch of lines and silhouettes.

Emily: And now, in your current role at Aggreko, what do you do?

Walter: Well, first, Aggreko is one of the world’s largest temporary power and temperature control solution providers. We operate in anywhere from 80-100 countries, doing everything from backup power for utility providers to powering major events like golf tournaments and Formula One (we have a bunch of people in Tokyo right now getting ready for the Olympics), as well as data centers, oil and gas, etc.

With such a wide range of solutions comes its own challenges: Aggreko has people spread across the globe but a fairly small footprint. We don’t necessarily have a lot of people in any one place, which is where this tech (Augmented Reality or AR) comes into play. It’s difficult when you’re looking at any kind of physical setup, forcing you to bring people to it as opposed to bringing the solution to them, and it’s one of the factors that drove us to AR.

In my role, I look after our learning technologies and operational support for AR, as it goes. (I guess the first one to make the case for the tech leads the tech across.) But, yeah, that includes our learning management system, virtual classroom training, competency and capabilities management, and AR-based training.

Emily: This was pre-pandemic?

Walter: Yes, we started piloting AR inside the organization about 2 years before the pandemic. We knew we were struggling to bring new products to people before they saw the product, because usually when a new product arrives it’s going out to an actual customer. It’s difficult to dedicate new products to training because they’re large and expensive assets, so we saw AR as a mechanism to help familiarize our technicians and field service personnel with the product before it arrived at their service center or project site and teach them procedures on the product in advance. So, that saves us on travel (the costs of bringing them to the product), plus their downtime and the cost of the physical asset itself.

We started building these product-based learning experiences pre-pandemic and that had been our primary focus.

Emily: What were the pre-pandemic challenges to adopting AR?

Walter: We had a mix of support: There were some strong leaders who saw the benefit and were willing to try and even champion it, but we did struggle with change management. With a mixed amount of initial buy-in and feedback, we really had to build out and pilot to get a good sense of how the technology could be applied. Once we had some initial digital AR experiences, though, it made everything easier. As it was unfamiliar technology for most, it took a hands-on approach and having those built experiences to facilitate value-adding, critical conversations about where AR could and couldn’t be applied.

Pre-pandemic, we weren’t driving AR as an organization-wide initiative; it was focused on learning and specific use cases. In our first instance, we targeted certain business types: Our high-volume, high-transaction business instead of our large power project sites, so we did try to narrow it down and not bite off more than we could chew. That focusing definitely helped.  

Emily: What about creating the digital content? Was that problematic or were you able to easily adapt what you already had?

Walter: We definitely underestimated resourcing the content. We looked at solutions with their own authoring tools with the hopes of upskilling some of our internal resources on those tools. Nevertheless, we still struggled with the 3D aspects - what happens when a part or component is missing, or you need to add another 3D element? The bulk of our ‘pain’ was around that—anything that wasn’t provided, that required additional development and thus a partner. Even though we were pretty well-rounded with the authoring tool, we needed to leverage a partner in those areas at least in the short term.

Emily: How did COVID-19 impact Aggreko's operations and what were some immediate challenges you dealt with due to no travel, WFH, etc.?

Walter: I’d say the first immediate challenge was that everything needed to be digitized immediately. The volume of what had to be digitized and having to prioritize what we were going to do first, that was a hurdle in itself. For my part, having to suddenly turn all this face-to-face learning into a fully digital experience and become comfortable with that was a challenge. Another challenge was that we didn’t know when the pandemic was going to end, so we went through these internal stages of unknown.

After a few months in, we were starting to need more people on certain sites but weren't able to get them there or train them before they arrived. There are site requirements they’re supposed to have that they typically would have learned in a classroom with hands-on elements.

And when I talk about digitizing everything, as we were building out some of the instructor-led training, it wasn’t just about resources but even components of things tended to be a big deal. How can we demonstrate how something assembles or disassembles, even down to the small parts? We realized this was missing in some of our original digital training when we were just converting things 1:1 and put slide decks into a virtual session with 2D engagements. Those were some of the unexpected pain points to this whole conversion. It became a real opportunity, not just a new use case, to overcome these challenges. Thankfully, the smaller, component-based experiences designed to complement instructor-led learning also tended to have a lower development effort.

Emily: Did you feel like you had a bit of a head start because you'd been looking at AR before the pandemic? Did it help push the use case through to anyone who was still skeptical?

Walter: It was very helpful that we already had a provider and solution in place and could easily expand and deploy it. We knew we wanted to reach everyone eventually with AR, but with the pandemic, everything was going to have to be realized faster.

Suddenly we were moving away from the product and into these new use cases that hadn’t been a priority beforehand, like the site safety required training: When we were suddenly no longer able to deliver a face-to-face course and it all had to be done digitally, we started looking at these experiences including their assessments much differently.

It drove more than the use case; it drove the recognition that AR is the same as the physical: Other than not being able to physically touch the rig, the experience being simulated was spatially identical to a real rig. Our SMEs and employees recognized the equivalence and so did the authorizing bodies when we proposed it to them: “Yes, you can use this replicated gas rig and we’ll sign it off with the practical being administered using AR.” It’s equivalent to watching someone do it on the physical rig, and that acknowledgement and acceptance toward certification was something we had never thought would be accomplished this early.

Emily: Pre-pandemic, I know there'd been hesitation on the part of certifying bodies (ex. in the aviation industry) to "count" immersive in lieu of physical training. So you're saying that in your case the realization was that XR could indeed replace what you need to get certified?

Walter: Yes, AR does count and we’re issuing certificates that are approved by our certifying body based out of the U.K. I think with the pandemic, certification bodies could no longer certify under their own standards and so they had to reexamine the standards they were upholding and take digital simulation a little more seriously. It’s not all on the organization to recognize the value of and adopt this tech; it’s got to be mutual. The certification bodies in the end hold the key to confirming the technicians. COVID-19 changed the conversation and there was suddenly more of an open ear to pushing some of these projects forward.

Emily: What role did AR play in Aggreko's going remote during the pandemic? How did AR enable certain remote tasks and activities?

Walter: We originally started down the route of training, specifically product-based training that was self-paced (sort of learn on your own). We hadn’t planned on instructor-based, where they can add a component on their desk and go through it during the face-to-face training or do their certification. So instead of a singular case for learning, we suddenly had three.

We also used AR for remote support, and in some regions more than others, during the pandemic. We realized we could leverage the same tools that we already had in place for learning for remote support, and again we had all this in mind originally, just not at the pace of adoption the pandemic pushed us into.

On the flip side of that, one of the things we did learn once we had a chance to take a step back is that we’re struggling to see the value of remote support by itself. We were receiving quite a lot of feedback that a digital work instruction was needed before jumping into remote support. So, we need to focus on the work instruction first before we push remote support. That meant establishing a library which could help enable some self-service before the user has to call an expert. In pushing this out quickly, some people were surprised there weren’t already digital work instructions.

So now, we’re starting with learning then we will work toward converting learning into work instructions, and then moving onto remote support.

Emily: Going forward, would Aggreko want to develop their own in-house development team for XR or continue to rely on a partner?

Walter: Eventually, yes. We’re heavily leveraging the Scope AR platform and developers as well as Abstract Developers right now and it’s currently meeting all our needs as our experience development partners.

The end goal is that as new products are released in the future, we will look at or point a device at the product to walk through any actions needed rather than trying to work off PDFs and other 2D work Instructions. We would also like to see the authoring become a simple and initiative process so that anyone can author an AR module even with limited knowledge.  

Emily: What has been the biggest lesson learned implementing AR under pandemic conditions?

Walter: Well, the most unexpected (positive) outcome is the certification aspect. I don’t think we could have imagined that in the same year we would already be certifying people leveraging AR. The biggest lesson would be not underestimating the work that goes into this. There’s a design and build process: You want the AR experience to be a well-rounded one, and we’re continually making things more engaging, adding more interactions and realism to simulations so things are continually evolving.

Emily: Do you think you'll continue using these pandemic-era use cases?

Walter: Yeah, we don’t have any plans to go back to certifying in any other way. We have started to deliver some face-to-face training where we can (in the U.S.), but we’re actually building more AR experiences for those same use cases, as instructor tools even. It seems the ideas that come from the business tend to be the ones that get the most traction, the ideas that come from outside the small groups of folks who recognize the potential savings, etc. are sticking.

Emily: What's next?

Walter: We are starting to see attention from the marketing side: We ran our first completely VR-led presentation externally last month, so we’re seeing other departments partnering with us to take this on. Our marketing team has also started experimenting with Instagram effects and other ways to digitally engage through AR, which is definitely inspired by the internal use of the tech.

We’re also starting to go down the route of reusing digital content. Our primary focus is on our technical audience and as we’ve built out some of these technical experiences, we’re able to reuse some of that optimized content for other departments, like product carousels that will teach you about each product and how to sell it for our sales teams. So, we’re just leveraging the same asset and not having to create brand new models. We’re starting to see some of the benefits of that approach.

We’re also prioritizing AR experiences for products that are critical to our energy transition (ex. battery storage). And we’re starting to get these end-to-end product experiences that we can convert to work instructions in the field, as well as seeing pull from the business to use head-mounted devices and the understanding that AR would be even better hands-free.

Meet Walter Davis and hear all the updates on Aggreko's use of immersive tech at EWTS 2021 this October online. Early bird tickets on sale now for a limited time.

Image source: Scope AR

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