Auto repair shops aren't usually conducive to serious study and conversation. They're often dirty and poorly lit, and the pace of hard work typically continues until quitting time. There are times, however, when mechanics need to pause and contemplate how to resolve a seemingly unfixable problem.
It's no different for Volkswagen mechanics when diagnosing a problem in the auto manufacturer's commercial van line. Sometimes, a VW master technician has no recourse but to seek advice from an expert at one of the main technical support centers.
In the U.K., the technicians in the main support center have to travel to any one of nearly 100 Volkswagen van centers in England, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland so they can help a repair shop get a commercial van back into the flow of a customer's daily operations. These visits call for careful itinerary planning against the backdrop of customers expecting expedient repairs.
Augmented reality devices meet under the hood
To reduce the technicians' travel time and to speed up repairs, Volkswagen is rolling out augmented reality (AR) technology to directly connect local van centers and the main support center in Milton Keynes, England. Wearing an augmented reality headset that's equipped with a high-definition camera, microphone and speaker, the master technician can show the home office what's happening under the hood so the expert on the other end can help guide the investigation and reach a meaningful diagnosis.
Paul Andersonservice operations manager, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles
"If there was a big red button we could press that would give an immediate answer to our dealers, we'd do that," said Paul Anderson, the service operations manager at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles in the U.K. "But there are situations where you need a step-by-step walk-through because the problem is outside the standardized process.
"What we're talking about are challenging, complex problems that there aren't answers for. So we're combining the expertise of our technical support center with the expertise of the master technicians at the local centers. If you work together, you can come to the solution together."
Before the augmented reality devices were introduced, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles' main support center and the individual van centers were collaborating on stubborn automotive problems via standard industry telediagnosis machinery.
"We do a screen share, seeing through diagnostic equipment that has an activate function," Anderson said. "But what we're missing is someone standing next to the master technician."
The Volkswagen augmented reality plan started with distributing RealWear HMT-1 AR devices to master technicians at 10 centers in the U.K. as part of a trial run. Eventually, all the van centers will be outfitted with the headsets. Anderson couldn't comment on whether Volkswagen in the U.S. would also try out the augmented reality gear or if they would be used in consumer vehicles.
The augmented reality devices first passed tests in the workshop at the main support center. They didn't roll off the heads of technicians, Anderson said, and the Wi-Fi and 4G connectivity of the headset remained strong.
Cutting through the noise
Garages are "quite noisy, and a challenging environment to work in," Anderson said, adding that a mechanic can't properly diagnose a problem with a phone cradled between his head and shoulder. The augmented reality headset is voice-activated, allowing technicians to work hands-free.
The technicians in the main support center also have control over the augmented reality camera. They don't have to tell the mechanic working on a van to "put your head there by that hot pipe so I can see that number there," Anderson said.
Master technicians typically seek help from the support center when trying to diagnose a misfire in a van engine or when a warning light flashes on the dashboard for no apparent reason. They've typically followed the repair instructions and relied on their own knowledge before contacting support.
"It is very varied," Anderson explained. "It's more to do with complex challenges."
By seeing what the shop master technician sees and communicating directly, he noted, the technicians in the support center can typically resolve the problem remotely and cut down on travel time and expense for personal visits.
The responsibility of getting vans in and out of the shop falls on the master technician, and, at times, the stress has led to job attrition.
"If you're the master technician, it's all on you," Anderson said. "The customer wants its vehicle back. It's all stressful for a master technician who wants to resolve the tough problem."
But with augmented reality devices aiding the diagnostic process, technicians "feel relieved because it's like having another master technician in the dealership," he said. "We can really support them through a stressful time."