Today, right now, many service providers are scrambling to find a way to deliver on their promises to customers without endangering them or their field technicians. Many will not think far beyond latex gloves and a mask, but forward-thinking companies are already looking at the bigger picture. For many, this includes considering options for zero-touch service.

Over the course of the last five years or so, we’ve seen the steady creep of businesses in a variety of industries moving towards zero-touch in various ways: fast casual restaurants putting mobile orders on shelves, retailers creating online pickup lockers, self-checkout kiosks, and IoT-enabled fixes for devices like routers and cable boxes. Given the current circumstances in which we are attempting to keep the world running, I believe that it’s safe to say that the creep will begin to accelerate into an avalanche, and service in many ways will lead that charge.

It’s easy to pigeonhole these innovations into one or two technologies, but the truth this that zero-touch service will likely be achieved through dozens of technologies, sometimes working in tandem, sometimes tied to the specific needs of an industry. Below, though, are three benchmarks based on what we can accomplish today, and what our current technology decisions can already tell us about what tomorrow will look like.

Let’s start with what companies can do right now:

Remote Assistance

We’ve already seen in recent years the prevalence and usability of augmented reality creep forward, and this has become increasingly commoditized and utilized for service functions across a variety of disciplines. I’ve long since promoted it as a means to train up new and contingent employees quickly on company policies, but it’s a clear vector for customer-driven resolution as well, and I’ve discussed how that might work in an application environment as well.

When zero-touch is the only way to reach your customer, remote assistance can be a quick and effective way to get you there today. Last week, Sarah outlined the case of Munters, who was able to deploy a solution in less than two weeks. For them, it was an existential decision, and it kept them whole in a time where their contemporaries were melting down.

Obviously this is not always a reasonable replacement for an in-person meeting, as I learned this week while attempting to provide some face time tech support to my father-in-law. While he pointed his phone at his computer screen, I asked him to hover his mouse over an item on the screen. I watched as he lifted his mouse off the desk and gingerly held it about an inch away from his monitor. “Nothing’s happening,” he said.

Yes, while there’s often a skills or resource gap between the back office and the field when it comes to remote service, if you’re able to keep 50% of your clients up and running without a truck roll, the trickle-down benefits to your business, not to mention the economy at large, are without measure. It’ll keep contracts renewed, avoid SLA penalties, and keep employees where they want to be: On the job.

This is what we can do today. What about tomorrow?

A New Kind of Parts Management

Diagnosis is still the best use for remote assistance today, but often the process of repair makes that a bit more challenging. It doesn’t have to be, though. Spencer Technologies ships out customer parts to a job site without technician oversight, and then a tech meets the part at the location and completes the repair or the swap. Sure, this can happen with shipping and fulfillment, but if you have a fleet of vans with parts inventory on them that are sitting in a depot, you have a fleet of zero-touch delivery vehicles ready to go.

Imagine a scenario where a customer initiates a remote repair call, and the technician identifies a part that needs to be replaced based on a combination of IoT data and visual inspection. Rather than dispatch a technician, you could dispatch the part itself—often within a reasonably small window—then provide step-by-step replacement or repair instructions via the augmented reality array. It could be done live, with an actual person, or, increasingly, step-by-step instructions could be prerecorded and validated using the AR screen.

Theoretically, the infrastructure is mostly there to make this work today. The most important part is a thorough, consistent, and comprehensive parts management and reverse logistics system. You need to know inventory on every truck, at every warehouse, where each piece is in the depot repair process, and where and how remittance, reissue, or scrapping occurs.

With these two pieces in place, companies will be well-suited for today’s challenges. Remote assistance is available today, but zero-touch parts allocation will take time to map out. The third phase takes it a step towards science fiction, though it’s a sci-fi that’s well within the realm of possibility over the next few years.

Assisted Repair

Imagine a scenario where, when a break occurs or is expected, a Roomba-like robot is dispatched, and through a drone-like interface is able to eliminate an issue without involving any humans. This may seem outside the realm of possibility today, but many industrial manufacturers are deploying fleets of robots specially designed to assist with simple repairs. From lifting and handling heavy parts to replacing faulty ones, to running routine security checks and providing a photo log that is attached to the customer account.

There’s obviously a huge amount of hardware infrastructure that needs to be considered here, and this is completely impossible in a number of industries but think about the degree of customer attrition you’ll mitigate by having your customer add your robot to their family. Combine these capabilities with remote parts remittance and shared view repairs, and you’ll see the cost per truck roll plummet, and customer satisfaction skyrocket.

Tom Paquin
Author

Contributor, Future of Field Service