Robots create hands-on feeling for remote mine operators

In the old days, miners would take a canary down to work with them in the mine shaft. If the canary died, the miners knew that they’d soon be next if they didn’t make a run for it. Canaries were a good indicator of pending disaster.

But canaries can’t do algorithms

In the mine shafts of the future, it will be robots not canaries that act as sentinels for safety. They’ll also be programmed to support or carry out other aspects of mining operations, while human operators stay safely positioned in remote stations above ground. But in the absence of any warm blooded beings below, how will remote operators be able to get a hands-on feeling of what’s going on? In order for mining operations to remain robust, efficient and safe, these remote operators can’t just be observers. They must partake in the operations, and with different senses in play.

A sense of sight can be achieved with various types of remote camera visualizations, although it’s still not easy for operators in the absence of 3D or stereoscopic view. But what about the other senses? Robots need to give feedback to the extent that remote operators feel just like being there on the spot with the remote machine.

Putting all the senses in play

An operator using a subterranean robot to drill holes in rock face may be able to experience a sense of touch, for example, through haptic feedback on the remote controllers. That means being able to feel how solid the rock is and adjust speed or strength accordingly. If the rock were to get too hard for the drilling equipment, it could create all kinds of unwanted safety repercussions and the need for expensive repairs.

shutterstock_132947174A sense of hearing as well as a sense of smell would also be useful, for example, to analyze machine motor sounds and underground explosions or events where gas leaks or burning are indicators of pending disaster. In the former case, auditory feedback is rather easy to implement with microphones, speakers and deliberate sound design. But in the latter case, instead of direct olfactory, or sense of smell, feedback, applicable sensors need to be able to detect suspicious alterations in air quality and alarm operators in other ways.

We recently visited a mining and technology conference in Toronto where many of the presenters and participants were using buzzwords like IoT, Industry 4.0, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), user experience and autonomous systems. However, during the breaks, most conceded that the mining industry still has some way to go before these tech trends could be applied to deliver value.

How can VTT help?

In a rather different kind of environment to mines, VTT, together with Tampere University, has developed a Remote Operation and Virtual Reality Center (ROViR) in Tampere, Finland to support remote operation and maintenance simulations for one of the world’s most challenging energy projects, based in the South of France, called ITER – in Latin, meaning ‘the way’.

As with mineshafts, no warm-blooded beings will be able to enter the ITER facility once it’s up and running. That means all maintenance will have to be carried out by smart robots, equipped with sensors for dealing with every possible scenario.

Finding the way with ITER

So far at ROViR, VTT has achieved high success in simulating ITER remote maintenance operations, many of which can be applied to other sectors. For example, VTT has honed the use of a transport robot to move a ten-tonne reactor cassette along a desired route with an accuracy of plus or minus 1 mm.

As well as supporting ITER, one of the aims of our design work with ROViR has been to find new ways for remote operators to achieve a sense of control. And many of these solutions can be directly applied to mining. For example, using VR/AR to help operators better understand spatial dimensions, such as distances among elements; applying ecological interface design for safety-critical control room monitoring user interfaces; or using AR video feeds to highlight crucial objects in remote work areas.

Our InnoLeap concept design approach has been developed to push radical new concepts into the industrial workplace. Backed by the experience gained from this concept design work with ROViR center, we’re now well positioned to provide numerous applications for other industries, especially the mining sector. That means collaborating with mining companies to go deep into the remote operators’ user experience. Using our task-analysis methods, we can explore what remote mining operators will need to do and know in order to be successful in their work tasks, both in abnormal and normal situations.

Canary or no canary, remote operators in the mines of the future won’t succeed by just winging it.

For more information, please visit: www.vtt.fi/innoleap/

hannu_karvonen_kuva
Hannu Karvonen
Research Scientist, VTT
hannu.karvonen(a)vtt.fi

 

 

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Mikael Wahlström
Senior Scientist, VTT
mikael.wahlstrom(a)vtt.fi

 

 

Find out what your users want, but don’t give it to them!

User experience can drive innovation, but if you’re looking for epoch-making innovation, don’t look only at what the users want.

In our user research work, we talk a lot to professional users. We interview them on what they do with a view to wrapping our findings into product and service concepts. The irony of our work is that even though user experience data is invaluable, if we really want to come up with a big new domain disruptor concept, we’re better off not going along what the users wish for.

Hands on learning in the Deep South

We were a few years back on the East Coast of the US doing fieldwork for Konecranes. The plan was to interview local crane operators, as part of a core-task analysis to discover the general demands of their work. These findings would eventually fold into a prototype system for a remote operator station, delivered through our InnoLeap approach.

Down at the wharf side, they can be a bunch of tough guys, and not keen on being interviewed by Finnish scientists. After a few false starts, we decided to bin the interview plan and settle for small talk. Although not a Finnish specialty, once we’d introduced the topic of last night’s ball game, we quickly found ourselves in full conversation and sharing mode.

In terms of developing an empathetic understanding of the users, we were well on our way. These crane operators knew exactly what they were doing and why. After years on the job, they had an intuitive nose for their operations making them able to sniff out potential problems and analyze the safety of their operations.

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However, once we started asking them for ideas on how they could do things more easily, more safely and more efficiently, for example through automated operations, they were generally stumped. In most cases, we find that users are too closely wedded to their current systems and practices to be intuitively able to even conceive of a radical new approach. On top of that, users are not necessarily up to speed with the whole gambit of technical possibilities or trends that the future has on offer.

Intelligent towing for ghost ships

As another case in point, the InnoLeap team worked with Rolls-Royce Marine, to develop new concepts for future ship bridges. One important user study finding was the need for tugboat operators escorting large ships to constantly anticipate the movement of the bigger ships being towed, especially in turbulent seas. Massive cargo ships turn slowly so tugs need to assist in an anticipatory way before the big vessel gets into trouble.

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Since these ships of the future may be autonomous, or ghost ships, as some of the users called them, the design goal had to be remote but highly intelligent. Taking into account the user findings and design goals, we came up with, for example, one concept solution called Intelligent Towing, which involved a direct data transfer from the big ship to the digital window head-up display of the tugboat. Information included the speed, turning rate, and distance between the two vessels, as well as the rate of strain directed on the towline.

How to address the irony of user research and radical innovation

The developed concepts and their visualizations scored a very high wow factor from the industry as well as technology pundits and even mainstream media. The secret to success from our side was to involve the user experience perspective only once we’d achieved what we call the fuzzy front end of design. This is the time when we’re free to come up with all kinds of initial concepts, even bordering on the absurd. Later we’ll have a chance to temper these ideas against the true user experience with a view to one day turning ideas into real marketable solutions.

This was also our intention in the fieldwork with Konecranes. At the end of our visit with the wharfies, we gave a hearty thank you and talked of a possible return visit to do some evaluations of our designs – and maybe even catch another ball game.

For more information, please visit: www.vtt.fi/innoleap/

hannu_karvonen_kuva
Hannu Karvonen
Research Scientist, VTT
hannu.karvonen(a)vtt.fi

 

 

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Mikael Wahlström
Senior Scientist, VTT
mikael.wahlstrom(a)vtt.fi

 

 

Can a container be more than a container?

In our previous post, we talked briefly about how the concept of user experience (UX) can help build brand loyalty and create products and services that not only fulfil their functional requirements, but also feel good to use. As a thought experiment, let’s consider some more futuristic scenarios. In our current world, a shipping container is just a container. What if we could turn it into something that would create an experience – and this experience could generate revenue for various players in the logistics chain?

UX future

We are used to thinking of containers as simple boxes that provide no additional value beyond physically conveying things from A to B. Moreover, beyond the generic markings of each shipping company, containers all look alike, irrespective of what goods are being transported. But what if this idea was turned on its head?

What if, in the future, premium sports cars would be transported in beautifully designed transparent containers that announced to everyone that this shipment was really something special? Would this provide a superior experience compared to hiding the car in a traditional container? Would manufacturers see this visibility and experience as supporting their brand image and be willing to pay for it? Consumer electronics companies such as Apple have long understood the value of beautiful packaging as part of the total user experience. Could this be applicable for container logistics as well?

Or, for another scenario, what if shipping containers incorporated display technology – e.g. digital paint – that would enable their colour and/or surface images to be changed? This would turn a nondescript steel box into a smart surface that could advertise the products being transported. Going a step further, what if these smart displays could be linked together, turning the ubiquitous container stacks at terminals into massive, dynamic display matrices, alive with colour and information?

If containers became a form of prime real estate for advertising, subject to the same competitive supply and demand mechanisms as web advertising, it might turn out that the real profit in container logistics was not in the actual shipping of the container at all. If a single container-turned-advertising-billboard on a highway truck sounds radical, imagine a visual surface hundreds of containers wide and dozens high. Now, that would be a wow.

In addition to the obvious commercial applications, this would open up fascinating possibilities for urban design. A technology such as this could increase the transparency of port operations, giving residents and other stakeholders a clear and concrete real-time view of what the port is doing and what kind of value it generates for its community. If a container port were able to generate a visual and conceptual “wow” effect of its own, people might be happy and proud to live next to one.

UX goes far beyond the traditional concepts of usability and ergonomics. It’s not just about designing a crane cabin that is more comfortable to use, but about finding new ways of doing things better. Digitalisation increases the chances of finding these radical innovations since they are more and more about ideas, systems and connections, rather than features of specific physical equipment. What about a world full of autonomous container terminals that were operated by consumers over the Internet in the fashion of a gaming platform? This would create an experience of dancing robots operated by crowd-sourced operators and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Whether this could be a reality is not contingent on hardware capability. It is a question of imagination, digital connectivity and a totally new way of organising an existing industry.

Granted, the ideas outlined above are still somewhat far-fetched, but the general principle holds: It is only a matter of time before someone comes up with a combination of new technology and disruptive business model that will recast our conventional wisdom of how value and revenue are generated in the container logistics chain. And when this happens, it is more than likely that a superior user experience – a “wow” effect of some kind – will be at the core of it.

Author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In consumer products, this sense of wonder is something we have all experienced from now and then, and product manufacturers dream of creating that one groundbreaking device or application that transforms our entire expectation of how we experience our familiar technology. Would it be possible to bring some of that magic into the world of industrial logistics as well? After all, we aren’t creating services and solutions for machines. We aren’t creating them for the industry or the market. We are creating them for people.

This post has been published also at Kalmar’s blog.

Jari Hämäläinen Kalmar

Jari Hämäläinen (Dr Tech.), Director, Terminal Automation, Kalmar, sees interesting opportunities in the digital convergence of ICT, industrial engineering and services. He has led offering development in Kalmar and service concept development in Cargotec. He has a background in the telecommunications and software industries, with over 300 patents in 40 global patent families helping smartphone users in their daily business and pleasure. His passion is to lead renewal through technology and business innovation.

Maaria Nuutinen VTT

Maaria Nuutinen was programme manager of the FIMECC UXUS programme (2010–2015). Her passion is to understand and help human and organisational activity in the context of technology enabled business. She is particularly interested in developing ways for enhancing mind set change and value co-creation based on user and customer experience. Her research interests include organisational culture, change management and service innovations. She is a Vice President in Business, Innovation and Foresight at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. Maaria Nuutinen received her PhD in psychology from the University of Helsinki in 2006.

Twitter: @MaariaNuutinen

Building brand love with superior user experience

We would like to pose a provocative question: Could you make your product or service so great to use that your customers would want to tattoo your logo onto their arm?

In consumer products, customers are happy to display their loyalty to brands that they love and with which they identify. Why couldn’t this be possible in industry applications as well?

Well, in fact it is – and there is a growing body of research that supports this conclusion. The key concept here is user experience, or UX for short. The User Experience and Usability in Complex Systems (UXUS) research programme of the Finnish Metals and Engineering Competence Cluster defined UX as follows:

The User experience (UX) at work is the way a person feels about using a product, service, or system in a work context, and how this shapes the image of oneself as a professional.

The field of UX is based on solid experience and research results that can provide concrete new tools for companies seeking to innovate and renew their business. In industry, the UX framework is still not widely used, whereas in consumer products and services it is often at the very core of product development.

At the heart of UX is putting yourself into the position of the experts that have the most knowledge of how your product works: Your customers, and more specifically, their end users. If you truly understand their world, you can create something that not only works, but also feels good to use, day in and day out.

Word of User Experience.

The UX world. Source: “User Experience and Usability in Complex Systems – UXUS”, Final Report 1/2015, published by FIMECC Oy.

Forget B2B, think H2H

A term that we should bury once for all is “B2B”. Ultimately, it’s always a person using your product, service or solution. So forget about business-to-business, think human-to-human. You are not designing a product for your customer. You are designing it for their users. If you just think in terms of one business selling to another, you will never reach the realm of double-price premium.

Unfortunately, we can’t tell you what the solution is – not for the container shipping industry, nor for whatever other field you may work in. But we can tell you that whoever does come up with that one golden idea will be the one whose offering the customer will want no matter the price, and the customers will be happy to pay extra for using it.

A superlative user experience can’t be something that is just styled onto the final product. It needs to be a core design goal throughout the entire process. You can go beyond a merely well-engineered product (with all due respect to engineers) and create something that truly “wows” the user – and it doesn’t need to add any cost overhead to the development process.

Goal: Make some people super happy

Reaching this level of UX will require providing not what the customer ordered, but something that greatly exceeds their expectations; something they haven’t even imagined yet. We need to deliver more than what the customer asked for. On the other hand, this also calls for great skill as we can’t overstep the project brief or make the customer feel like we are underestimating them.

UX goes beyond traditional concepts of usability, user interface design, industrial design and brand identity. An axiom of good UX design is that we shouldn’t worry about designing a product or solution that makes everyone happy. It is much better to create something that makes some people super happy.

If your customers love using your product – if they feel good about it – they will love your brand. Think about Apple users and their relationship to their tablets, smartphones and computers. Think about Harley-Davidson enthusiasts actually tattooing the logo of their motorcycle on their arm. This is certainly the ultimate victory for any brand. Or is it? After all, the question then becomes how to transfer this brand love to the next, upcoming generation of customers.

What, then, is the equivalent for our industry? It is unlikely that many clients in the container shipping business would want to engrave their service provider’s logo onto their biceps. But if a product or service is so good that people feel great using it, they will want to buy from us – or from you – and price will not be the only deciding factor. How does that sound?

So, the race is on. Who will get there first?

To read more about the possibilities of the UX methodology and research results in the field, visit http://uxus.fimecc.com/tags/ux-booklet

This post has been published also at Kalmar’s Port 2060 blog.

Jari Hämäläinen Kalmar

Jari Hämäläinen (Dr Tech.), Director, Terminal Automation, Kalmar, sees interesting opportunities in the digital convergence of ICT, industrial engineering and services. He has led offering development in Kalmar and service concept development in Cargotec. He has a background in the telecommunications and software industries, with over 300 patents in 40 global patent families helping smartphone users in their daily business and pleasure. His passion is to lead renewal through technology and business innovation.

Maaria Nuutinen VTT

Maaria Nuutinen was programme manager of the FIMECC UXUS programme (2010–2015). Her passion is to understand and help human and organisational activity in the context of technology enabled business. She is particularly interested in developing ways for enhancing mind set change and value co-creation based on user and customer experience. Her research interests include organisational culture, change management and service innovations. She is a Vice President in Business, Innovation and Foresight at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. Maaria Nuutinen received her PhD in psychology from the University of Helsinki in 2006.

Twitter: @MaariaNuutinen