The pandemic made on-site testing of power stations and their components more complicated – and considerably so in some cases. But it also made a wide range of product and services companies aware of the availability of technology to monitor, manage and repair units remotely. Rather than fly several experts to a single site, the experts can stay where they are and watch the inspection happen virtually, while giving advice and instructions on the situation. Here, Christoph Gatzen and Simon Lemin at TÜV SÜD explain how their system works using smart glasses, and the additional advantages they offer. They cite power stations as a case study, but their system is being used in many other sectors too. In a global market, where companies site their products and manufacturing facilities in faraway countries, it is a valuable solution to the problem of delivering real-time expertise anywhere in the world. [Promoted by TÜV SÜD]
Power-station inspections are challenging in terms of both occupational health and safety and environmental protection. To assess the safety of a new power station or freshly installed components, third-party experts from various disciplines need to be involved. This typically includes on-site visits to, and inspection of, the factories where components are produced. As these factories can be located in all corners of the world, travel restrictions and bans on visits to production sites have made some of these inspections impossible. Alongside this, on-site inspections are costly for clients and take up a lot of the experts’ time, a scarce resource in the testing, inspection and certification (TIC) business. Furthermore, long-distance flights increase the carbon footprint of all parties involved.
Digital solutions in difficult times
Having only one expert instead of an entire team on site can cut down carbon emissions, time and costs. To this end, both TIC companies and plant managers increasingly rely on assisted reality (aR) in the form of smart glasses. The adjustable high-resolution display attached to the frame of the smart glasses allows information – images, diagrams or tables, but also tutorials, manuals or circuits – to be exchanged in real time. The wearer can simultaneously document the inspection process. Other experts can be connected in real time by video call to give instructions.
VR, AR or aR?
Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and assisted reality (aR) can make operational processes safer and more efficient. In power station engineering, these innovative technologies are applied to assist with repair, maintenance and inspection activities as well as structural and technical modifications. The terms, while frequently used interchangeably, involve a number of significant differences:
VR describes a three-dimensional computer-generated environment in which users can act and interact completely free from real-life risks. To do so, they need to use a display or VR glasses. VR is used, for example, in employee training to simulate servicing and maintenance processes and train employees in these processes. AR, by contrast, superimposes digital data over users’ reality in the form of information or interactive elements. In aR, on the other hand, digital data are projected onto a display in the user’s field of vision, thereby enhancing reality without impairing what users see or disrupting their attention. Generally, this is done by using smart glasses.
Enhancing occupational health and safety
TÜV SÜD has been applying aR in production monitoring and in factory and other inspections as well as initial and continued training, using smart glasses made by RealWear. The US manufacturers’ HMT-1 model is supplied with the SHARE app developed by German software manufacturer oculavis GmbH. The app provides the bidirectional audio and video connection between the experts and their colleagues from other disciplines. Independent workflow solutions provide step-by-step instructions for operation. The smart glasses are
- robust and durable,
- impervious to penetration of dust and other particles,
- moisture-proof and can withstand direct contact with high-pressure water streams,
- compatible with personal protection equipment (PPE), e.g. safety goggles or safety helmets,
- and equipped with active noise cancellation, auto-mute function,
- and voice control.
They connect inspectors to all information that they may need while keeping their hands free for inspection activities. The voice control supports 17 languages. It works offline even in 95 dB(A) of typical industrial noise.
Technical requirements for its use include an Internet connection – WLAN or LTE – with a minimum bandwidth of 4Mbit/s (up/down). All data need to be saved in accordance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Furthermore, remote inspection is only possible if the customer agrees to the video and audio transmission. To ensure the protection of employee privacy, the on-site presence of a data-protection officer (DPO) is advisable; the DPO accompanies the process and takes steps to ensure measures such as blurring of faces. The data captured during inspection are available to the customer in encrypted form on the remote service platform.
Quality assessment at the production site in China
TÜV SÜD currently has approximately 100 sets of smart glasses in use for inspecting power-station components at different sites all over the world, including a Chinese manufacturer of valves used in thermal power stations. TÜV SÜD had been commissioned to assess the quality and safety of the production process. As entering China was impossible at the time due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, an employee at TÜV SÜD Greater China, a subsidiary of the TIC company, performed the on-site inspection wearing smart glasses. The wearable solution connected the employee with his colleagues in Germany. A team comprising mechanical and electrical engineers plus specialists in non-destructive testing, leak-tightness and welds then guided the expert through the inspection process with the help of digital manuals and circuits.
On the spot in all corners of the world – virtually and instantly
In this case, remote inspection saved the manufacturer seven intercontinental flights as well as accommodation costs and cut carbon emissions by 20 tonnes. Smart glasses make expertise globally available and more easily accessible, improving the quality of inspections, facilitating the scheduling of inspection dates and thereby enabling inspections to be performed in a timely manner. As bandwidth in data transmission increases and terminal devices are further improved, the areas of application for smart glasses are set to expand in the future.
TÜV SÜD Energietechnik GmbH Baden-Württemberg
+49 621 395-370
TÜV SÜD Greater China
151 Hengtong Road
+86 21 6140 2979
Christoph Gatzen is Head of Instrumentation, Control and Electrical Division and Head of Inspection Body “Energietechnik” at TÜV SÜD Energietechnik GmbH Baden-Württemberg
Simon Lemin is Director of Industry Service Division at TÜV SÜD Greater China