New Zealand’s largest electricity retailer, Genesis Energy, aims to reimagine energy—from generation to retail. When COVID-19 forced the New Zealand government to introduce a full country lockdown, including strict travel restrictions, it forced Genesis to look at innovative solutions to keep its power station maintenance program on schedule. This included using Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality technology to help engineers collaborate and perform complex inspection tasks remotely.
Genesis Energy operates 1800megawatts (MW) of hydro, thermal, and wind-based power stations across New Zealand’s North and South Islands, providing electricity to around 500,000 customers. Maintaining these complex, geographically diverse infrastructure assets typically requires specialised engineers to fly between sites to physically inspect, test, and maintain these assets in person. The company had to adapt during COVID-19 and develop new ways for its teams to collaborate remotely, and Microsoft HoloLens was one of the tools used.
“Two years before COVID-19, we had purchased two off-the-shelf HoloLens kits,” says Angus Judge, Genesis Energy General Manager of Operational Excellence. “We knew the technology had potential, but didn’t have a clear use case for it. We’d try HoloLens occasionally, but finding actual applications wasn’t always clear. What COVID-19 did was push us to use the technology into a specific case that proved valuable.”
Seamless collaboration with virtual reality
Within a week of the lockdown restrictions taking effect, Genesis had the Microsoft HoloLens up and running and working with Microsoft Teams. The headsets allowed an engineer to guide an on-the-ground worker through planned outages at the company’s Tekapo Power Scheme on the South Island site in real-time, to the Hamilton office on the North Island, more than 1,000 km away.“
Wearing the HoloLens headset, the worker linked with the engineers through Microsoft Teams, so they could share information and engage virtually with the plant,” says Judge. “The team was able to remotely fit new parts and carry out necessary inspections on wear and tear.” Collaboration was done in real-time. The remote engineer gave instructions while drawing directly onto the worker’s HoloLens vision—circling key areas, using pointer arrows as guides, and taking measurements.
Before lockdown, this work would always involve a specialist engineer flying from Hamilton to Tekapo. Using HoloLens freed specialists from travel time and improved productivity by making the engineer’s expertise more available across the business due to remote working. “Traditional travel requirements are now being reviewed given the use of innovative remote collaboration technologies, like HoloLens,” says Judge.
Achieving global certifications remotely
HoloLens was also deployed at Genesis Energy’s Huntly Power Station—the country’s largest. Changes to the vacuum plant at the station were required to be certified. However, the company that conducts certifications was based in the UK, 20,000km away.”
Normally we’d fly them out to do the certifications on site and verify that everything has been done correctly,” says Judge.
The virtual certification exercise went ahead successfully, amidst the lockdown and New Zealand’s closed borders. HoloLens played a role in this exercise taking place.
“When it comes to new technology, like the HoloLens, you have to believe in the vision, chase it hard, and get the right people around it. Do that, and it might just become the future of work,” says Judge.
Creating the future of work
Genesis Energy’s HoloLens pilot was successful and plans are underway to expand the program further. “We’re now working with Microsoft to explore the new HoloLens II technology and starting to engage with our staff on developing more sophisticated use cases,” says Judge.
One potential use case is training future generations of Genesis employees. This involves capturing the knowledge of the company’s longest-serving employees—often with highly specialised and rare skillsets—and documenting it for future employees.“
We’re investigating using the HoloLens to record employees completing highly skilled work from a first-person perspective, complete with diagrams and drawings,” says Judge. “Then we can use those videos as an engaging way to teach the next generation of operators, maintainers, and engineers these specialists’ skills.”