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Customizing the Future of Industry in Mixed Reality

Thyssenkrupp teams up with Microsoft to use HoloLens to customize and deliver services four times faster.

Granted, when you think of exciting applications for Mixed Reality, stair lifts might not be the first thing that jump to mind…but bear with me here.

Most of us will get old someday, and with advances in medicine there will be a lot more people living longer. Every eighth person on the planet is over 60, and by 2060 69 percent of the population will be of pension age. So it’s no wonder that industrial giant Thyssenkrupp elevators is predicting that demand for stair lift solutions will skyrocket in the next few years, especially as urban populations grow.

The problem the company has is certainly not a lack of customers, but in building customized solutions for each and every one of them. No two stairs tend to be exactly alike, and stair lifts need to fit perfectly if they’re to function properly. This has traditionally been a very slow and convoluted process which involved an engineer going to the house of the prospective customer with a large trolley full of equipment, then painstakingly measuring every aspect of the staircase, taking into account user ergonomics and obstructions such as heating vents, light and electrical fixtures, closeness to the wall, shape of the railings, etc.

Each year these processes generated over 25,000 drawings and diagrams, and made over 100,000 individual adjustments to their designs. Now, however, they are looking to do all of this through the HoloLens to visualize, configure, price and quote a stair lift in real time.

Since the device works by constantly scanning and mapping the surrounding environment (so that the holograms it generates can interact realistically with real-world objects) Thyssenkrupp was able to just tap into that inbuilt functionality to scan, measure and configure each stair lift, customizing it to the requirements of each client including upholstery texture, chair and rail colors, and any additional bespoke features they might want.

Where before an engineer would go away to get the measurements processed and eventually return with a quote once all the calculations and estimates were made, they can now instantly generate a 3D Holographic model of what the lift would look like in that specific environment, and show it to the customer (either on a tablet or by getting them to wear the HoloLens themselves), adjusting it as needed and getting final approval on the spot. All the data is then uploaded to the cloud and accessed by the production teams at the factories, who can start putting together the necessary components straight away.

Thyssenkrupp has already applied this new process in over 100 homes during a pilot project in Holland, Spain, and Germany, and found that on average the HoloLens made the entire process four times faster.

Customer feedback was so positive that now the company is rolling out its use of the HoloLens throughout Germany, with plans to expand to other countries soon afterwards.

I tried it on for myself in a recent demo at Microsoft’s office in London, where I measured a winding staircase with the help of a simple handheld gadget that was essentially a marker to help the device to latch on more precisely to the position of each step. I then was treated to a realistic 3D animation of what the stair lift would look like going up and down those same stairs. The whole process only took around 3 minutes or so. 

It’s not surprising that Thyssenkrupp is keen to adopt the HoloLens to make those processes more efficient, as it builds on the company’s existing collaboration with Microsoft. They were one of the very first HoloLens partners when it launched 3 years ago. It was, as their VP of Innovation Thomas Felis puts it, “an eye opener” for the company.

In its first use of HoloLens, ThyssenKrupp introduced the Mixed Reality devices into its field operations so that service technicians (the company employs around 24,000 of those) could visualize and identify problems with elevators ahead of a job, and have remote, hands-free access to technical and expert information when on site. Field tests showed that it was possible to complete service interventions in a quarter of the time or less by using HoloLens. 

“A job which normally takes one to two hours and usually ends up having the expert traveling to the site we were able to carry out the first time in twenty minutes,” says Andreas Schierenbeck, CEO of Thyssenkrupp Elevator.

The economies of scale in being able to make industrial processes that much more efficient are nothing short of staggering, and my next memo showed just how easy that change was to implement.

I was ushered into a room, and once I put my HoloLens on I was left alone with instructions to initiate a Skype call on the device when I was ready. Skype is one of the functionalities that come out of the box with the HoloLens, and it was pretty straightforward to just air-tap the familiar button (the HoloLens interface works through a combination of eye tracking, voice commands and gesture recognition, so that air taps work much like mouse clicks).

Once my instructor popped up onto my field of view, he was able to see and hear everything that I could see in the room, so he proceeded to tell me how to repair the light switch on the wall. As someone who is quite hopeless at DIY, I was a bit dubious, but at each step he was able to give precise instructions because he knew exactly what I was looking at. Not only that, but he was able to draw arrows or circles around real-world objects to indicate which tools he wanted me to pick up, which drawers I should open, and which switch needed to be flicked up – and in what order.

In less than 3 minutes I undertook over 10 entirely unfamiliar tasks, gaining speed and confidence with each one, always save in the knowledge that I was connected to someone who knew that they were doing. And I have to say; I never thought I’d have such fun fixing a light switch. It felt like having a superpower. No wonder the HoloLens is now routinely being used by many of Thyssenkrupp’s team of over 20,000 service engineers worldwide.

It’s one of those cases that illustrate the unique advantage of the HoloLens for industry applications. What can seem like an expensive device for an individual consumer is incredibly good value for a company weighed down by legacy systems. And we’ve only just started scratching the surface of what is possible. Even if the HoloLens never makes it to the mass consumer market, Microsoft is certainly onto an exciting market full of low-hanging fruit, and it will be interesting to watch how that develops. 

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