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Field Service: The IoT Revolution's Silent Partner

January 03, 2017

As our world gets more automated and “things” come to life, field service technicians stand at the ready to keep the connection alive.

Trains get delayed, the power goes out and heavy equipment shuts down. What happens when the technology that runs the world's supply chains, transportation and communication networks falter—or stops running altogether? Field service, the oft-overlooked $18 billion industry, holds the answer.

More than 20 million people worldwide work in field service: keeping the world's machines (and the operational systems) humming. These technicians make sense of intricate mechanical interruptions for global businesses and are on-call when a homeowner's HVAC system fails.

To date, field service has been mostly reactive, responding to problems rather than anticipating them. But that's changing as more machines go online, from wind turbines to dialysis machines to elevators. Today's field technicians are becoming critical links in the mainstream adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Solving Business Problems with Real-Time Data

The IoT future is bright. According to research firm IDC 22 billion IoT-enabled devices will be in use by 2018. Most of these devices will rely on technicians for maintenance, who will also use these connected things such as technological thermostats—whether it's an industrial robot or a commuter train—to anticipate issues before they occur.

This scenario is already playing out on London's Underground—the public transportation network that carries more than 1.3 billion people per year. European infrastructure giant Alstom Transport uses IoT-enabled railcars to keep the Underground's Northern Line running with a promise of maximum train volume and minimal delays. Field service technicians constantly monitor rail data to pinpoint when and where service will be required, adjust performance in real time and remove trains that need to be taken out of circulation—all without disturbing Northern Line schedules.

"The Internet of Things is a huge evolution in the global market," Alstom's innovation director Jean Le Bastard said recently in a conversation with PTC, a global service lifecycle technology company. "We can use data from trains to measure the number of people onboard, then adjust the air conditioning to reduce consumption and make people comfortable. As users of public transportation systems, we don't perceive the impact of all that. But it's there."

Alstom's model taps into a constant flow of performance data to guarantee its more than 90 trains are active with only a handful of trains in reserve. IoT-linked sensors on each train car send information back to Alstom's field service team each time they roll into a station. Le Bastard added that with the IoT "new services, applications and functions can be added to a train with reduced modification in terms of architecture."

Moving Beyond the "Things"

Yes, the IoT is focused on connected "things"—but the implications of the technology go beyond that. They actually create an entirely new microcosm of service. Many businesses, it seems, are less interested in the actual connected device and more drawn to the outcomes the IoT offers.

“What's interesting to note is that when we speak with companies about IoT, they don't come to us asking, How do I implement IoT?" says Heather Ashton, research manager at IDC Manufacturing Insights. "Rather, they are asking for solutions to specific business problems: How do I increase visibility of my products out in the field? How do I improve customer experience and customer satisfaction? How can I create a more profitable product or service offering?"

Research from McKinsey Global Institute predicts that business-to-business use cases will comprise 70 percent of the IoT's value. Their analysis of IoT deployment points to energy grids, healthcare facilities, heavy manufacturing plants and field operations around the world as the proving grounds for enterprise-wide adoption. Field service technicians are trained to use their knowledge of assets and machines to maintain and fix every category.

"Field service will not only facilitate, but also validate the enterprise adoption of IoT," says Athani Krishnaprasad, founder and chief strategy officer of field service management company ServiceMax. "With access to diagnostics and data sets, field service will not only allow IoT to scale to the enterprise, but will also provide a foundation on which this burgeoning industry can build."

This story was produced by the WIRED Brand Lab for Comcast B2B.

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