Like many big companies, Xerox is confronting a complex workforce challenge: the coming retirement of many of its field-service technicians and engineers.
“They’re not just leaving, they’re leaving with a lot of the company’s experience,” Sam Waicberg, general manager of Xerox Digital Services, said recently at Knowledge 2021, ServiceNow’s annual user conference.
To solve the problem, which involves hundreds of technicians servicing thousands of machines, Xerox is turning to a relatively new technology: augmented reality (AR).
The plan is for Xerox field techs to have access to live remote and on-demand expertise as they perform their jobs using augmented reality. Guided by a live person, they capture relevant content, including images and annotations, while recording the sessions through mobile, tablet or smart glasses to smooth the troubleshooting process. The result is improved technician effectiveness and higher first-time fix rates, in service of increasing customer satisfaction.
For Xerox, a company with an iconic history in computing innovation—the company released a foundational desktop publishing system in 1986, before IBM, Apple, or Microsoft, and famously invented the mouse in 1981—the stakes are relatively high. Xerox serves customers across healthcare, education, manufacturing, and retail. It provides tools and appliances that keep the lights on, sometimes literally, for their customers. To avoid costly service interruptions, Xerox must quickly train the next generation of field techs using tools and techniques that are less cumbersome and more scalable than paper manuals.
The switch to AR could mean a more agile posture for the organization.
A global challenge accelerated
Xerox is hardly alone in the fight to replenish and retrain swaths of an aging, highly competent, and extremely knowledgeable workforce. By 2030, nearly 20% of the American population will hit retirement age, with many expected to retire. Since 2020, more Baby Boomers have retired than ever before.
Machine learning–integrated AR can predict where problems might arise in the job and prescribe solutions on the fly.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the mass exodus. Among Americans 55 and older, the labor force participation rate—the portion of the population working or seeking work—has fallen from 40.3% in February 2020 to 38.3% a year later. That represents a loss of 1.45 million people.
Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, told The Wall Street Journal in March 2021 that the unique risk that older people faced during the pandemic has probably deterred them rejoining the workforce.
Businesses are trying to figure out how to quickly train a new workforce during a massive brain drain. “How do you get your competitive edge?” Waicberg said in a recent interview with Workflow. “You need a way to arm the people who are doing work for your organization.”
An Integrated Solution
Before its foray into AR, Xerox—which started off as The Haloid Company in Rochester, New York—armed technicians primarily with paper manuals. Nowadays, Xerox technicians regularly use voice calls to walk each other through repair issues. Sometimes a second technician will come to the job site to offer additional help. If they get stuck, they can consult the manual. Though perhaps not a model of hyper-efficiency, that system worked until recently.
The pandemic made sending multiple technicians to a jobsite impractical, if not dangerous. New field techs could no longer ask colleagues to help out with tricky service issues in person, stretching resources on a global scale.
For a solution, Xerox acquired CareAR, an augmented reality startup. The company also developed a defined Xerox Digital Services division, the business unit designed to bridge the gap between customer service, field service, and service management.
As CareAR’s founder and CEO, Waicberg built the technology on the ServiceNow platform to integrate and extend AR for field services and customer services. While many people still think of AR as a gaming technology, he wanted to create an agile, scalable platform for businesses that unites intelligence and content.
Using any smart or wearable device (mobile phone, tablet, smart glasses), field techs can solve problems in real time, receiving real-time, on-demand visual assistance and contextual knowledge. “Machine learning–integrated AR can predict where problems might arise in the job and prescribe solutions on the fly,” Waicberg said.
The Rise of AR Technology
Despite the growing adoption of AR technology, concerns remain that the technology is cost-prohibitive or cumbersome.
In the wake of the pandemic, such skepticism is dwindling. According to a report from tech market advisory firm Allied Business Intelligence, the worldwide market value for AR is expected to grow to $140 billion by 2025. That figure is up from about $10 billion last year. This growth extends across media and entertainment, retail and marketing, consumer software, and advertising.
Given the heightened global awareness around cleanliness and safety, that figure may not be surprising. The pandemic has increased the demand for tools that enable workers to perform tasks remotely and consumers to shop without leaving the house.
For example, when jewelry brand Kendra Scott closed their stores during COVID-19, the retailer leveraged AR tools to enable customers to “try on” earrings without leaving their homes. Similarly, Ulta’s virtual beauty tool GLAMlab has seen a sevenfold increase in use since the pandemic started.
In a Nielsen global survey from 2019, consumers identified augmented and virtual reality as the top technologies they’re seeking out to assist them in their daily lives. Half said they were willing to use AR tools to assess products before buying.
According to IBM’s U.S. Retail Index Report of 2020, both retail businesses and customers have started to leverage AR technology. Brands including IKEA, Home Depot, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci have implemented AR since the pandemic. To assist on-site workers, PTC Inc. deployed an AR remote assistance solution, while UK-based hospitals used an augmented- and virtual-reality-based platform for mental health and support training.
The Future of Reality
Now that people are beginning to see the power of AR, it seems as though the sky’s the limit. “Soon we will move beyond augmented reality and into augmented intelligence,” Waicberg said. “Uncovering new ways to improve the speed, efficiency, and efficacy of our business solutions.”