Von Nikolaus Fecht
International research relies heavily on the diaphragm metering pumps from Lewa, which ensure constant cooling of the silicon sensors used in the European particle physics laboratory (CERN) in the Canton of Geneva. The Swabian company has made a name for itself with such special solutions. With 1,200 employees, the company has been producing small batches of tailor-made pumps and metering systems around the world for nearly seven decades.
As part of the unveiling of its newest pump at Achema, the world's largest trade fair for process technology in Frankfurt, the company looked for a suitable application to present the inner workings of the pump. "We previously used models with see-through Plexiglas tops to display our pumps at trade fairs," says Marketing Manager Ronja Pecher. "However, visitors were not able to see other components. In addition, it was not possible to demonstrate various scenarios, such as a blocked pressure line or a diaphragm rupture. Our goal was to show the inner workings of a complete process pump at the trade fair using tablets."
The tablet's camera captures the actual pump and superimposes a virtual internal view over the image. The viewer holding the tablet can move freely around the pump to take a close look at the interior and exterior from all directions.
The technical implementation was a demanding task for the external service provider from Munich. It took quite a bit more than just simply transferring the electronic CAD drawing into a 3D animation - a process also referred to as post-processing. The CAD data sets for the static representation (exterior view) and the dynamic animation (interior view) had to be processed separately. The views must correspond precisely to the actual pump so that the virtual interior view can be exactly superimposed over the actual pump.
Lewa presented the pump in operation at the trade fair, enabling the company to simulate a diaphragm rupture as well as a blocked suction and pressure line. Product management had created a storyboard in the run-up of the trade fair, describing the processes in detail.
Demonstration of large pumps at any location
Entering the world of AR took about six months - but, according to Lewa, the effort was well worth it. Visitors to Achema were very interested in the pump and the AR application.
As a result of the trade fair success, the pump manufacturer decided to modify the AR solution in such a way that it can also be used without a pump - because the model displayed at the trade fair in Frankfurt was simply too big and heavy for quick transport. Thanks to this new AR application, the pump can be freely placed as a virtual model in any room to showcase its functions and animations. It can be scaled as needed and moved freely about the room.
Lewa now uses this technology to demonstrate the functioning of very large, non-displayable pumps during training sessions as well as directly at the customer's premises. This additional benefit was originally not planned. "The app was so popular at the trade fair that our colleagues did not want to do without it after the show," says Ronja Pecher.
Servicing with AR data glasses
The tablet solution is great for training and demonstration purposes, but it is entirely unsuited for service work on an actual pump. For this purpose, Lewa uses data glasses. In the event of malfunction, the customer uses the data glasses to contact a Lewa expert who will assist in the initial analysis. Minor malfunctions can be eliminated directly on site in many cases. After testing a number of products, the company based in Leonberg now uses data glasses made in the USA, which, according to Moritz Pastow, project manager for digital business development, are suited for demanding use in industry.
In addition, the data glasses can be controlled via voice commands, meaning that the operator has both hands free while working. Their small display monitor has two additional benefits: "Conventional glasses with two displays limit the field of vision," explains Pastow. "Furthermore, many people experience discomfort when wearing data glasses that cover the entire field of vision for longer periods of time. This is usually due to the low display refresh rate." However, one display is generally sufficient to offer a complete view of the user's surroundings. The glasses are based on the Android operating system and use a special app created by Essert GmbH from Ubstadt-Weiher.
This is how the data glasses are used on site in the event of a malfunction: The technician puts on the data glasses and scans the pump's QR code for identification. At the same time, the service engineer at Lewa is automatically informed via an incoming call. "Once the remote connection has been established, the service engineer can see through the eyes of the on-site customer technician and analyze what is happening inside the pump," the project manager explains. "Together, they can make an initial analysis and, ideally, eliminate the malfunction then and there."
Remote maintenance from Leonberg
Pastow also states that it is very helpful to display the camera image on a screen. This allows the service engineer in Leonberg to guide the customer through the necessary processes using arrows, mouse pointers and other graphic elements in the image. Screenshots and videos can be used to capture important situations - provided that the customers have given consent to the use of their data. For important steps, the service engineer sends instructions such as "Tighten the screw with 15 Newton meters" in form of a text message, which can also be translated automatically into the local language.
Real-life contact remains important
But how did Lewa service technicians react to the AR premiere? "Initially, they were indeed a bit concerned that they would no longer visit customers, and that everything would be handled via remote service from now on," explains Pastow. "These worries quickly fell by the wayside because most customers refrain from doing any major maintenance and conversion work on the equipment themselves for guarantee and liability reasons. Minor issues, such as a loose valve, on the other hand, can be fixed in a few easy steps in next to no time using AR technology, and without travel that may take a few days."
What's next and what are the AR pioneers from Leonberg looking for? "It would be great if we could project pump models freely in a room without the need for tablets or other gadgets."