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National Oilwell Varco (NOV), an oil and gas equipment manufacturer headquartered in Houston, has spent the last year testing smart glasses for remote assistance. NOV is the industry leader in rig equipment and produces everything from small pumps to full floating rig platforms.

Recent changes in the global oil economy have prompted NOV to explore cost-saving solutions like remote assistance. We spoke with Colin Mason, project manager at NOV, to learn how this technology has impacted both NOV’s end-users and its customers.

Upskill: What dynamics are pushing NOV into exploring smart glasses to improve service delivery?

NOV: We are using smart glasses for two different but similar use cases: aftermarket field services and plant assistance. With the economy being in a slump, rig counts are down by half. They’re not expected to rise to pre-2014 levels for several years.

“We need to do more with less. We need to work smarter, not harder.”

There is a common challenge in field service: to send the right, most experienced tech to every service call. That is nearly impossible with our wide ranging product offerings and global presence. We have offices all over the world. The best person for the job may be half a world away on another job.

We need to provide better service to our customers despite this challenge. Smart glasses and remote help will get us there. Often the person we send on a service request might have general knowledge of hydraulics or control systems, but not specific expertise on the customer’s issue. With smart glasses, we can deliver that expertise remotely.

Upskill: What were some of the challenges of implementing this technology and how did you overcome them?

NOV: When we first started, smart glasses were bleeding edge stuff. The technology wasn’t very mature. There were very few software packages out there. We were lucky to stumble upon the Skylight offering.

We settled on Google Glasses but there were a lot of other solutions out there that were very close to the market, or promised to be, but weren’t quite there yet. We were a little frustrated by the available tech from the hardware side.

Connectivity was our biggest challenge. Our rigs are located in very remote areas. Land rigs are quite a bit away from civilization and our offshore rigs are pretty far out. There’s a significant challenge to get the Internet to those areas for the glasses to use.

For land rigs, we equipped our service trucks with commercial grade LTE communications and a diversified Wi-Fi antennae system. For service techs that routinely go into areas with no cell service, we equipped their trucks with satellite dishes.

The service trucks, whether they had a satellite dish or just an LTE system, have become our mobile hotspots on steroids. We are still trying to solve the communication challenges on offshore rigs. It’s a whole different set of challenges.

We need to find equipment that a tech can carry with them on a helicopter or rig that enables them to be completely self-sufficient in terms of connectivity. There are challenges in metal structures of offshore rigs and electromagnetic interference. We’re still trying to work through those.

Upskill: Where can someone start to learn about some of the different satellite technologies and things that are out there for them?

NOV: The first place I would start, and where we started, was with our cellular service providers. We have strong relationships with AT&T and Verizon. Both companies have very sophisticated tech departments that deal with smart glasses. They also know how to deal with satellite dishes.

They can provide you with contacts and providers for upgraded, commercial-grade LTE equipment. I attended several of the meetings with the technologists from these cellular providers. I was pretty impressed. They do a lot more than just cell service for personal use.

We also have an ex-military guy on staff. He erected mobile communication centers in Iraq and Afghanistan out of nothing. We’re lucky to have his expertise.

Upskill: Can you describe how your organization, both the field techs and the management team, feel about smart glasses technology?

NOV: I expected there to be some skeptics but there hasn’t been any of that. Everyone has been pretty excited about it. Some of our guys are getting a bit older. We made sure to include some of them in our pilot project. Everything that I thought they would complain about, they didn’t.

There was one of our Denmark plant managers who I thought wasn’t going to get it. He’s a bit older. I was over there training them on remote engineering. This older gentleman had trouble interacting with the Glass. He kept talking to it, saying, “OK GLASS, OK GLASS, OK GLASS.”

Suddenly, he gets up and leaves the conference room without speaking to anyone, I was projecting the Skylight software on a large screen in the room. A few minutes later, he called me from a break room to ask me which buttons to press on an overly complex coffee machine. We all helped him out with troubleshooting. Once he got the coffee crisis figured out, he attempted to place the mobile access point in a microwave and asked how long he needed to heat it up for. Then we all screamed, “It doesn’t go in there!” We are able to avoid that catastrophe.

All joking aside, it really showed how remote hands-free communications can be used in everyday situations. That guy that I thought was going to need a lot of hand holding turned out to be the power user in the plant.

Management is behind this. They see the ROI. They see the future. They see we could potentially save ourselves and our customers a lot of money and time. Downtime is huge in the whole industry; it can be millions a day depending on the rig you’re on. Obviously management is very keen to solve the down time issue.

The other issues we’re running into is the challenge of sending second or third techs. We can’t bill the client for this extra training time. It costs us a lot of money and reduces our available pool of resources to send to other jobs. Management is 100% behind the idea of supervising remotely with smart glasses.

Upskill: How do you envision the industry using this technology in the future?

NOV: I see us expanding our user base for remotely assisted field work, as well as expanding the technology to other areas of the business.

We have a lot of engineering facilities that are separated from their plants by several hours. They’re often in different states or different countries. For instance, Denmark has an engineering office that supports Brazil. Smart glasses can be used to help the frequent calls that go back and forth between the plants and the engineering office.

I also see our next evolution using e-procedures to incorporate 3D models and step-by-step instructions for the repair and maintenance of equipment. That’s going to be a big step to us for the next coming months. We’ve already started that with displaying IoT data on the smart glass screen. Just recently, we completed a proof of concept in this space. We’ve had some good successes and it was fairly easy to do.

Upskill: What benefits have your customers experienced?

NOV: Faster resolution time, resulting in smaller down time and larger savings. I’ve personally met with several of our customers and they’ve all been very excited. We expected some skepticism but they see that every little bit helps and that this technology could be a lot of help. Everyone is pretty excited; they’re coming up with ideas we haven’t even thought of before. They’re moving faster than we’re ready to go. We actually have to slow them down a little bit.

I was just approached yesterday from one of our customers asking to use this technology for a factory acceptance test, which is the final quality test of a large piece of equipment before it gets delivered or repaired. They’ll normally send one of their guys to our facility to witness the test. Customers see that this tech can save them money on their own people, particularly by replacing travel time with Google Glass. It might not be as cool as being there in person, but it is certainly easier, faster, and cheaper.

To learn more about Skylight for Oil & Gas, download our case study on knowledge transfer.