Using Remote Experts Becoming Technically and Economically Feasible

Last winter the hype cycle concerned metaverse, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR). I wrote about a conversation with GridRaster Co-Founder Dijam Panigrahi about his company’s take on “immersive mixed reality for enterprises.” That was in January this year. Not long after came ChatGPT and the hype cycle went into overdrive on Artificial Intelligence. Now everything is AI.

This seemed to be a good time to talk with Dijam again following up to see if he wanted to add AI to the AR/VR talk and come full circle beyond the hype cycle. Also he is not the marketing lead. We can skip the buzzwords and hype and focus on why and how rather than stay at a more superficial plane.

GridRaster provides the platform, foundation if you will, for using AR and VR hardware of your choice in order to accomplish real-world tasks. Talking with me, he’ll focus on industrial and manufacturing applications.

The marketing pitch leading to this conversation included sustainability. We broached that topic through the lens of minimalism. The idea of using technology to minimize use of resources.

OK, disclaimer, my son is a commercial airline pilot. I encourage all of you to go out and fly somewhere. However, if you have a problem with an asset, you may not want to wait hours/days for an expert to fly in from somewhere far away only to discover that a critical tool was located elsewhere.

How do we get these tools that may include AR or VR and/or AI to the front line worker in order to accomplish the task quickly and efficiently. For example, he told me, imagine a worker facing an aircraft grounded somewhere. It never requires maintenance where there is a maintenance hub. Now, the company must fly in an expert.

Now, what if we give that front-line worker something like a Microsoft HoloLens backed up with the GridRaster platform? Now between the local camera and 3D modeling (digital twin), the expert can see what is happening right at the instant. That expert can now see what’s happening, the worker can see information displayed through the device, and the expert can now guide the worker to complete the repair. Saves time, expense, fuel.

Dijam sees the platform and applicability extended to design engineering. Designers use clay models and iterative detailing to prototype a new car. With 3D modeling and conversations with a variety of design engineers, the team can iterate faster. This same applicability extends even into the manufacturing of the product.

I mentioned that I first wrote about these applications about 23 years ago. But the networks were too slow, the hardware too clunky, and the tools limited. He said, sure, look at how unit prices of many things have decreased, networks moving now even into 5G, data moving from centralized cloud to hybrid and edge. Technology continues to improve speed, ease of use, price for application. Plus GridRaster solving the infrastructure problem.

They have tried their application in manufacturing and have found that an AR solution helps a worker with one year of experience perform as well as one with five years. Given the worker shortage problem all over the world, this alone would justify a purchase.

Case Study Returning Used Mobile Phones to the Supply Chain

Last winter I got sucked in by an advertisement from Verizon. My wife was due for a new iPad and could use a new iPhone. I was thinking about upgrading my 2-year-old iPhone. The ad looked like a good deal to trade in a bunch of stuff and walk out with new equipment. In the end, you never get the deal exactly as advertised because of nuances. But we did it.

I bet you’ve traded in a phone or two in your life. Ever wonder what happens to those old traded-in phones? You are about to find out.

A publicist I’ve known for a while who (unlike most these days) knows me and what I like to write about, pitched me a story about an actual user of automation. I said great, I’d like something beyond just a new feature in the software. Except the company was Assurant. I looked them up. An insurance company. In 25 years, I doubt that I’ve written about insurance once.

But she’s trustworthy and the application seemed appropriate, so here we are. A story about how a division of Assurant has built a big business taking in traded-in mobile phones and reinserts most of them back into the supply chain. If you’ve bought a refurbished phone, chances are it went through one of their facilities.

That’s how I wound up on a Microsoft Teams call with Brandon Johnson. He is the Senior Vice President of Engineering and Automation at Assurant, a leading global business services company that supports, protects and connects major consumer purchases. Johnson oversees all engineering and automation initiatives related to the mobile device lifecycle across 20 locations worldwide. His primary responsibility is to lead a team that implements innovative software and robotics technologies to enhance efficiency, safety, quality, and device value.

We’ll walk through the process they have developed for processing 15 million phones per year. Then we’ll look at how automation has improved workforce stability, worker safety, and throughput.

First, Johnson told me his background and education were industrial engineering and operations management. Automation was something he picked up along the way. Before automating anything in the processes at Assurant, though, he emphasized two things:

  • They don’t automate simply to replace workers
  • Every automation project must have a business purpose

So, what happens when your used phone hits one of their facilities?

Incoming material is all in boxes. There is no uniformity to the boxes. They must all be opened and the phones removed. The original process used people with razor box knives. These are a safety hazard (I know, I had a job using them once). The job also was not challenging which led to excessive attrition.

After phones are decartoned, they are provided with a QR Code ID. They proceed to a charging station as all need a minimum amount of charge for downstream processes. They go to a cosmetic grading station and then sorting into those who have potential high value and those not so much to those that will just be ground for recycling. Next comes a diagnostic test station where 65 tests are performed. Data cleaning comes next. This is a crucial step and Assurant is certified for data cleaning. They’ll perform and value-added repair if feasible. Then, on to the warehouse to be sold and shipped.

Automation has been added so far:

  • Machine to slit the incoming boxes and cartons. This changed the job from manual knives to a technician job. That job is more stable and has value-added skills
  • Cosmetic grading is highly complex and subjective. Assurant has developed a patented automation for inspection and grading the phones. Once again, a high-turnover job turned into technician roles leading to a more stable and trained workforce.
  • Diagnostics testing has been upgraded from a single workstation where they’d dump a bunch of phones on a person and they’d perform all the tests on a single computer. Now there is a flow to the system easing the bottlenecks. 
  • A robotic feeder brings phones to the charging stations and plugs them in saving yet another rote job.

I asked about recycling the powder from groundup phones. They send to a third party who can extract the various metals from the powder for reinsertion into that supply chain.

Authentise Releases Threads to Spur Agile Engineering Collaboration

I’ve recently written about digital threads in the context of moving digital data from one app to another. Last week a new social media application appeared to fill the space Twitter is abandoning called Threads. In the midst of this, here comes a press release about the release of a new app for engineering workflows—Authentise Threadsd. Same name. Common idea (linking data/people). Three different uses.

In a sentence, Unique work thread collaboration empowers R&D and industrial engineering teams to flexibly speed up, track and integrate product development. 

Authentise Threads delivers powerful digital thread capabilities, combining communication and project management tools into a radically new work thread collaboration suite. Authentise Threads helps transform R&D and industrial engineering teams into innovation engines with more fluid operations demanded by today’s increasingly distributed environments.

Key features:

  • Cross Functional Work Thread Collaboration. Create, search, follow & link shared work threads across engineering teams and partners with real time structured communication, chat & notifications.
  • Shared information, knowledge, experience, resources and context. A shared repository of all the key data, resources, goals, metrics needed for work thread execution
  • Collaborative Digital Decision Making. Formally track and manage workthread efforts, insights, actions, decisions, resolutions, and more.
  • Continuous learning & improvement. Share full history & traceability of work, discussions, issues, decisions, actions, metrics, all with full context. 

Honeywell User Group Recap–Many New Technologies, Applications

Honeywell Process Solutions held its annual HUG (Honeywell User Group) conference the week of June 19 in Orlando. I’ve taken some time to compile my many notes and think about the experience.

The marketing communications staff did an excellent job with media and analysts. We did not have time to waste what with presentations and 1:1 conversations.

I had not attended for a few years. For maybe three years I was in the influencer program with Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HPE Discover is the same week. That program was disbanded a year or so ago. That marked the end of my IT affiliations. Those companies figured out there was not a lot of money to be made in manufacturing.

There were many questions begging for answers as I traveled to Florida. What was Honeywell HIVE, and how does it relate to the ExxonMobil initiated Open Process Automation group? What is Honeywell Digital Prime and what customer problems does it address? What successes have Honeywell achieved with sustainability initiatives? Honeywell was an early mobility developer. What has progressed in that regard? What role does Honeywell see for AR and VR?

Pramesh Makeshwari, CEO

He mentioned he’d been CEO of this group for only about nine months. Here are a few points of overview.

  • Honeywell is not replacing people with technology but helping them perform better
  • People have different learning styles and Honeywell products adapt to them
  • Digitalization is a significant customer requirement
  • Companies are on the Path to Net Zero Carbon
  • Focus on Digital Workforce Competency

Evan Van Hook, Chief Sustainability Officer

He looks at sustainability as similar to the Quality Revolution where the goal was to produce quality outputs consistently creating a culture of quality. His question, “Can we create culture of sustainability?” Honeywell is taking a Lean approach—quality, delivery, inventory, cost, then add sustainability.

Lean is a systematic approach. The company overall has generated more than 6,500 projects over 13 years with ideas coming from the floor and everywhere else. Not a political statement, sustainability cuts costs and adds efficiency. A few milestone points:

  • 92% reduction of CO2
  • 70% improvement in energy efficiency
  • Restored 3,000 acres of land
  • Water savings
  • 4x industry average safety

Act your way into a new way of thinking—Lean—put sustainability into Lean

Tiffany Barnes – Digital Prime

I perhaps had the most difficulty understanding Digital Prime. This is the Honeywell offering responding to the customer need for digital transformation. So, the conversation with Tiffany Barnes from that group was most instructive. Part of my cognitive dissonance perhaps came from this being a new offering only having one part released.

Digital Prime is most easily described as cloud-hosted digital twin of DCS. Some of the customer pressures Digital Prime addresses include:

  • Risk of disruption, production downtime and plant safety
  • Pressure to reduce overall lifecycle cost
  • Do more with less through digitalization
  • Data overload
  • Reduced skilled workforce onsite

It is perhaps an irony that Honeywell build a virtual infrastructure to help with system acceptance then deleting it upon that acceptance. Customers began looking at digital transformation programs and realized that all this data Honeywell had was useful. This grew to a digital twin.

Honeywell’s Digital Prime is the up-to-date digital twin for tracking, managing, and testing process control changes and system modifications. It brings the highest level of quality control to the smallest projects: An efficient, compliant, and collaborative solution for managing changes, factory acceptance tests, improved project execution and training.

Providing secure cloud-based connectivity and a virtual engineering platform, it’s a collaborative environment for managing and testing additions, patches, upgrades and other system changes:

  • Enabling functional reviews and impact analysis
  • Supporting remote FAT tests 
  • Providing a training tool
  • Documenting digital changes.

Joe Bastone — HIVE

Veteran editors and analysts were most curious about any Honeywell response to the initiatives undertaken by The Open Group to solve problems of economically and efficiently upgrading control systems.

This led to my intense interest in Honeywell HIVE and a subsequent conversation with Joe Bastone.

The problem lies with traditionally tightly coupled control hardware, software, and I/O.

Honeywell mostly solved the I/O problem years ago with its configurable I/O. That part of the control system continues to evolve.

The company then worked with a major customer about how to upgrade control software with minimal disruption. First, they worked out how to move the existing control software to a modern hardware platform leaving all the I/O in place. They realized that was in reality a form of virtualization. Moving to a virtualized compute environment effectively decoupling hardware and software was the obvious next step. Their I/O was already virtualized and decoupled. 

So, Honeywell HIVE solves that upgrade problem that customers are searching for.

Thanks to Joe for walking me through the technology evolution.

Sarang Gadre — Battery Technology

The well documented issue with intermittent renewables (solar, wind) results from the laws of climate—the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. Honeywell has had a commercial battery storage product for a while. It is housed in shipping containers. Introduced to us at HUG is the Ionic—a scalable, forklift-able, virtual power plant,  with an energy control center in Experion. It is battery agnostic—you specify and buy your batteries of choice. The unit also features peak load shaving.

Naved Reza—Carbon Capture

I always enjoy conversations with Naved regarding sustainable technology solutions.

First up was reference to the ExxonMobil Baytown deployment of one of Honeywell’s carbon capture technologies – Honeywell’s CO2 Fractionation and Hydrogen Purification System. This technology is expected to enable ExxonMobil to capture about 7 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, the equivalent of the emission of 1.5 million of automobiles for one year.

Then we discussed Honeywell Ecofining—Renewable Fuel projects such as Diesel/Aircraft from biofuels. Also Ethanol to Jet and Methanol to Jet.

Aside from Baytown, there are a number of Carbon Capture (CO2) to blue hydrogen, renewable green, low carbon processing.

Manas Dutta — SafetyWatch Mobility

Performing maintenance on a pump involves an average of 3.5 round trips for the technician. Using augmented reality (AR) platforms can save many hour by providing the right documentation and required tools up front.

I made this trip closely following both the Apple Vision Pro announcement along with all the AI chat hype. So I had to ask Manas for his take from the industrial viewpoint.

“AR/VR are excellent for training especially as individualized based on AI feedback. AR/VR can also be useful for construction. When planning turnarounds, I can answer questions such as can I get a crane in, do I need scaffolding, without a visit remote site.”

Apple Vision Pro–Useful for Industrial and Manufacturing Applications?

Welcome to the era of spatial computing, where digital content blends seamlessly with your physical space. So you can do the things you love in ways never before possible. This blurb came from Apple PR’s write up of the new Vision Pro—the long-awaited AR/VR headset.

Apple made no mention of the “M” word. Here is what they called it. “Welcome to the era of spatial computing, where digital content blends seamlessly with your physical space. So you can do the things you love in ways never before possible.”

It is a headset. Even though they say that you used to look at the glass on Apple products and this one you look through the glass—that is not what it is. You actually do not see through the glass like you do with the Microsoft HoloLens. There are many cameras and a couple of them send the outside world to the screens (look like eyeglass lenses) in the headset. This is a typical case of great Apple hardware engineering and design.


What is problem being solved?

Apple didn’t really answer that. What they did was through out a great piece of hardware, an operating system (VisionOS), and a bunch of ideas. Developers will figure out what problems they’d like to solve with this product.

I’m still thinking, but from an industrial/manufacturing point-of-view I don’t see any new applications. Simulation with digital twin for training. Perhaps remote maintenance and troubleshooting. Simulation along with design in order to see the product being designed and perhaps determine interferences and other gotcha’s at an early stage in design.

I have worn HoloLens as an operator interface device. I doubt that this would ever be a viable alternative.

Some people, such as MG Siegler (see link below) see this as a device to consume media. Much is made of the great display capabilities to replace your computer monitors. But I ask…

Do you want your screen attached to your face?

The promo emphasized collaboration with cool “real” avatars of people in the meeting and ability (?) to see people and presentation. I’m not turned on by that. 

They also showed 3D visualization and photography. Is that really useful? Maybe to the dad shooting 3D images of his kids—but I always wonder how much you miss out being present in the moment rather than videoing events. And how often will you actually go back and watch?

Ideas? Send me a note. Right now, will I rush out and spend $3,500 to buy one? I think that if I have that much money laying around to burn, I’ll take a vacation to Europe or South America.

Vision Pro links.

M.G. Siegler, 500ish Blog—Apple’s history, Compute, Collaborate (iPhone, iPad), Consume (Vision Pro)

Another Podcast, Benedict Evans and Toni Cowan-Brown.

Accidental Tech Podcast, John Siracusa, Marco Arment, Casey Liss.

And, most thoroughly, a long report of personal experience with the Vision Pro from John Gruber at Daring Fireball.

Other thoughts on the “metaverse” in general I’ve posted over the past year:

My podcast.

Metaverse Solutions, interview with GridRaster

Open Metaverse Foundation

Initial Thoughts on Industrial Metaverse

Four Ways to Build a Culture of Honesty and Avoid ‘Productivity Paranoia’

Trust seems to be a commodity in short supply these days—if we are to believe all the media we might be consuming. My personality type tends to trust most people upon first meeting allowing them time to prove themselves either worthy of trust or someone to avoid. Many people default to distrust allowing another to perhaps overcome the distrust—if ever they can.

Building trust becomes essential to both building a brand and building a team.

Therefore, this article I saw in the MIT Sloan Management Review struck me as relevant.

A lack of trust between colleagues and managers in remote and hybrid environments can damage workplace culture and morale.

It was inevitable that the rise in working from home would create tensions inside many organizations. But it didn’t have to be quite this bad. According to a new survey by Envoy, less than a quarter (24%) of employees trust their colleagues to get work done remotely.

Twenty years ago, I told my manager I was going to do more work from home. I was a writer. The cubicle life at the company detracted from the ability to concentrate on writing. I churned out more articles and news from home. In fact, no one on the staff turned out more work. But the boss, worried about control, said, “As long as you get your work done.”

Research shows that distrust damages workplaces, whereas high levels of trust fuel engagement and motivation while reducing absenteeism.

Four points:

  • Assess Employees’ Individual Environments
  • Simulate Natural Interactions — Lots of Them
  • Be Transparent About Monitoring
  • Train Team Members in Getting to the Truth


Pamela Meyer is the author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception (St. Martin’s Press, 2010) and the CEO of Calibriate, a deception detection and inside threat mitigation consulting firm. Her 2011 presentation “How to Spot a Liar” is one of the 20 most popular TED Talks of all time.

Bullet number two should be stimulate natural interactions. Good people management both of local and remote teams benefits from such an environment. Don’t let people burrow into lonely caves. Especially if you are managing nerds.

Transparency is always a key to good leadership. Let people know what you are doing, where you are going, and how they stand with you.

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