The (Virtual) Grand Tour: Getting Creative with Restrictions

COVID-19 has forced many companies to shift strategies, causing many organizations to get a little creative. In terms of plant tours and inspections, going virtual may be the first step in working through the restrictions.

Nicholas Imfeld, principal engineer, Avanceon
Nicholas Imfeld, principal engineer, Avanceon

There is no doubt that recent circumstances around the coronavirus and related restrictions have required service companies, like Avanceon, to pivot, adjust, and adapt to answer the question, “How can we operate in a way that delivers the same (or better) level of service to our customers?” One way is to use the tools we already have in new and creative ways.

Recently, we had an appointment scheduled with a customer to tour their facility to assist them in developing a system to provide greater visibility into their operation. Unfortunately, the day before we were scheduled to visit, the government guidelines in the customer’s region were changed, requiring us to cancel the visit. But the project was important to them and important to us, so we didn’t want to indefinitely postpone. So, after kicking around a few ideas, we settled on using our favorite web-conferencing application to conduct a ‘virtual tour’.

Our plant contact was a great host. She installed the conferencing app on her phone and joined the meeting. She walked us around, pointed the camera at the major components of the lines, and described their process to us. We were able to ask specific questions, go back over certain areas, and review everything we previously planned to see. The whole process took about 30 minutes and we were able to get what we needed to take the next steps in developing the system. All in all, it was a great success.

For Avanceon, there is no substitute for a site visit; where we can meet together, get to know our customers, discuss their needs, and consider how we can help them.

Now, we are counting the days until we can resume our in-person meetings. In the meantime, we will be using virtual tours to continue to provide the level of support our customers expect. But even after the restrictions are lifted, I can see using conferencing apps and virtual tours as another tool in our utility belt. For example:

•     This would be a great way to add some context to a customer’s operation when we are first getting to know each other;

•      The tool can help us perform emergency remote support by providing us with eyes on trouble components we can’t normally see (i.e. the un-networked human-machine interface, the error message on the variable frequency drive, or the field device that isn’t behaving like it should); or

•      It can serve as a means to follow-up after a site visit or assessment, when we’ve gathered lots of information but could use a quick review of some elements.

This is just one way Avanceon is trying to be creative in addressing the present need under these circumstances and taking what we’ve learned to apply it moving forward. What creative things have you tried?

Nicholas Imfeld is a principal engineer at Avanceon, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Avanceon, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.

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