Many businesses have found ways to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19 pandemic through the use of new technology but for Genesis Energy, one solution was already sitting on the shelf.
The Auckland-based electricity generator and electricity, natural gas and LPG retailer had already invested in and experimented with Microsoft's HoloLens virtual reality headset gear, buying a basic $3500 kit going on two years before the pandemic struck.
Genesis wanted to use HoloLens as an alternative means to inspect its critical infrastructure, support engineering projects and to achieve required certifications.
These tasks were being carried out in person by local and overseas experts, who had to be flown to generation sites at significant cost, not to mention the carbon emissions.
Those early trials and experiments didn't stick and Genesis returned to its established ways of working.
Necessity being the mother of invention, however, the the pandemic and lockdown provided powerful incentives to dust down that HoloLens gear and to look again to its augmented reality, interactivity and high definition video functionality.
"I suppose our application of the technology has been given a bit of a shot in the arm due to the circumstances of COVID," explained Nigel Clark, executive general manager wholesale operations.
When the pandemic and lockdown arrived, Genesis had three major pieces of engineering work going on at its Tekapo power station, in the South Island, but even the company's New Zealand-based specialists could not get to the site.
Digital programme manager Neil Jelley conceded Genesis' use of the technology was "right down at the more basic end of the scale" for augmented reality applications, but it served its purpose.
The headset kit was being used as bought, using basic functionalities of real-time audio and video and the ability to interact over the screen, without any "fancy" software, Jelley said.
Interactions included the ability to circle an item of interest or to point. Screen sharing capability also allowed an engineer in Hamilton, for instance, to display an drawing into the field of vision of an engineer on-site at at Tekapo or elsewhere.
"In this situation I guess it was just a case of giving it a go and if it didn't work we would still be in the same boat we were anyway," Jelley said.
During the trial, an on-site engineer in Tekapo donned the headset (see video above) and was able to call or be called by specific experts in different locations to check aspects of, for instance, a generator rotor refurbishment project.
The HoloLens headset also allowed the on-site engineer freedom to use their hands during the inspection with others viewing the proceedings at 60 frames per second in high definition.
The technology also helped to keep engineers on the team safe by enabling compliance with Covid-19 social distancing and remote working requirements.
The gear is now being used a couple of times a week to help keep projects on track.
"It's shown a new way of working for some of us," said Angus Judge, group manager of operational excellence.
"We've probably cut down quite a lot of travel for engineers. Once they've got a comfort with the technology working, I think we will be able to cut back on some of that travel permanently."
Recording also allowed team members and others to review their work whenever required.
Genesis Energy's core engineering group was based in Hamilton and the company managed dispersed facilities in places such as Tekapo, Waikaremoana and Tukaanu.
"None of those locations are particularly easy to travel to, so absolutely we will use this more going forward," Clark said.
Travel is also an expense category that could be targeted fruitfully for savings.
"It will become more entrenched for sure."
One expected barrier, bandwidth, proved to be easily overcome. The equipment worked well over the local wi-fi at the the various sites.
"We've been able to do this without a big investment in expanding our wi-fi coverage," said Jelley.
Wi-fi coverage was being extended, but mainly to support more use of tablets in maintenance operations. This was paper based but in future the information will be made available digitally from the start.
Judge said that shift would mean "dumb data" available on, for example, a scan would be replaced with live data that could be used straight away.
Having proved its mettle at Tekapo, the HoloLens technology is now being deployed into use at Genesis Energy's Huntly power station, on the Waikato River.
Vacuum sealers at the station had been modified and that change needed to be certified. However, the company that does those certifications was based in the UK.
"Normally we'd fly them out to do the certifications on site and verify that everything has been done correctly," said Jelley.
The virtual certification exercise went ahead successfully towards the end of May.
Clark said COVID-19 had exposed some challenges to procedures such as regulatory certification. From a regulatory perspective, certification can be provided as long as the gear involved can be visually sighted.
Japanese engineers from Mitsubishi are also heavily involved at the Huntly plant.
"I can see this thing starting to play out in many ways we haven't even touched yet," Clark said.
The opportunities to do things differently keep coming.
One that is materialising is in training. At some of sites, the equipment and design is over 50 years old, with some machinery made by companies that no longer exist, so replacement parts need to be custom made.
This also means there is a lot of institutional knowledge among older or recently retired engineers that needs to captured and mentored on to the new generation.
Genesis is planning to get these older experts to perform such tasks, record them via Hololens, and then to "draw" these on to trainees' field of view as AR tutorials.
Clark said Genesis is also experimenting with aerial drones and submersible drones in tunnels and other areas offering cost savings as well as improved safety.
Predictive analytics and models are also being developed and deployed to help spot issues early.