The Field Engineer of the Future
National Grid boosts innovation with the Leading Edge Forum’s Xperience Lab.
An engineer stands boldly in front of a crowd. His hard hat and other protective gear are on. He’s equipped with every new technology you’ve heard of, and maybe some you haven’t.
- Google Glass for augmented reality
- Orion Onyx push-to-talk communcator for instant real-time communications
- Smartwatch for business notifications
- Smart Shirt from OMsignal to track health and well-being
- iPad with Occipital 3D scanner
- iBeacons for use with field assets
by Lucy Nolan
For a group of engineers at National Grid, this scenario wasn’t just an exercise in imagination. This was a glimpse into their future.
Shaking up corporate culture
National Grid (NG) is an electric and gas utility that operates a vast energy infrastructure and serves some 20 million customers, mostly in the UK and the northeastern United States. But like many companies in highly regulated industries, its corporate culture has often been characterized by cautiousness.
“Within National Grid, there’s a perception that we’re quite slow when it comes to adopting new immersion technology,” says David Goldsby, digital innovation manager at National Grid. “The business approached me and said, ‘How do we even adopt the next iPad — whatever that is? What would an engineer look like in five years’ time?’”
“It used to be much easier for workers to keep track of new technologies,” says Lewis Richards, a researcher with CSC’s Leading Edge Forum (LEF). “Think about personal computers, mobile phones and the Internet. These key IT systems were, and are, mostly general purpose in nature, and often just as relevant in our personal lives as in our work.
“In contrast, think about IoT [Internet of Things] technologies,” Richards continues. “Now we’re talking sensors, iBeacons, 360-degree cameras, GPS, wearables and drones. These technologies tend to be more diverse and application specific, which makes them much harder for individuals and organizations to identify and keep pace with.”
That’s why the LEF created its Xperience Lab in 2014. The idea, Richards explains, was to assemble a mobile collection of the most relevant new technologies, and then work with each client to help employees build digital skills on premises, in the context of the company’s business. National Grid’s recent use of the Xperience Lab showcases the potential of this hands-on learning approach.
Meeting the future, today
Each year, NG’s IT organization holds traveling road shows, visiting various operational parts of the firm to discuss direction and needs. To get the attention of the engineering unit, NG invited the LEF to participate in the road show, and together the two organizations created A Day in the Life of the Engineer 2020.
The executive in charge of the engineering unit agreed to model the technology the LEF would be demonstrating. And thus, with interest, relevance and the cool factor firmly established, LEF and NG proceeded with a full-day Xperience Lab workshop. Twenty NG operations and business staff gathered in Manchester, UK, to explore three specific sets of technology deemed relevant to NG: virtual reality; 3D and 360-degree imaging and modeling; and the IoT.
After immersing itself in the new technologies, the group learned about “recipe building,” where the LEF has identified certain technologies that can combine to create higher-order systems. Using these recipes and group-generated ideas, the group was able to build initial prototypes to later test and implement in the field.
Solving real business problems
As an example of a “recipe,” Richards offers up the “teleporter,” a combination of consumer technology that could easily allow a company to connect a worker in the field to a knowledge worker located anywhere in the world.
“It’s a very low cost, no-coding way of virtually teleporting people to any location that you can capture an image from,” explains Richards. “All you need is a 360-degree camera, a VR [virtual reality] headset, a smartphone and perhaps the biggest invention in technology in the last 50 years, the selfie stick.”
The field worker could connect a smartphone to the camera and use the smartphone as a remote control. An app on the phone would allow the worker to use the camera to take a full spherical 360-degree image. Once that image is taken, it could be emailed back to the office for a knowledge worker to use his or her phone to look around the image and communicate back to the field worker.
“You could go even further by using the camera to power a virtual reality headset,” Richards continues. “Now you’ve got a fully immersive experience. VR headsets are very simple and low cost, with a mini-USB port to connect to an app on your phone. When the knowledge worker puts on the VR headset, for all intents and purposes, he’s teleported to that location.”
Building on momentum
Encouraged by the outcome of the Xperience Lab workshop, National Grid has now adopted the idea as part of its internal toolkit.
“We started originally with the gas transmission part of our business,” says NG’s Goldsby. “Then what started happening was other parts of National Grid started knocking on the door, going ‘We want a bit of that as well. Why haven’t we done this sooner?’”
NG now runs its own labs to generate ideas and look for advantages to exploit. But Richards sees additional benefits from participating in an Xperience Lab, even without bringing new projects in-house.
“There are obviously cases where you can apply these consumer technologies around a workflow process and save money or improve business processes,” Richards says. “National Grid has shown this. But more importantly, I think the lab experience gives people a better bulwark to talk to their vendors.
“If the concept of Internet of Things is abstract to them,” Richards continues, “if they’ve not experimented with consumer IoT technology and daisy-chained this stuff together, then they’ve got no basis when a vendor says, ‘You’ve got to spend £10 million on 70,000 of these devices or your business is going to fail.’ How do you make a decision around that if you’ve never experienced it?”
The consumerization of IT is just getting started, and the need for hands-on experience continues. As action shifts to the edge of the enterprise, engineers of the future will need to embrace technologies, such as APIs and virtual and augmented reality. Engage in front-of-the-firm digital innovation and become comfortable with an outside-in world.
“Curiosity is extremely important,” says Richards, “but there’s no substitute for experience. With a commitment to hands-on exploration, the engineer of the future will quickly learn how to use today’s plug-and-play technologies to create even more exciting things.”
Lucy Nolan is a content editor with CSC’s global content team.