The maintenance and repair of machines often costs a lot of time and money in pharmaceutical and chemical companies. This is because the machines are often not only highly complex – even complicated manuals do not make it easy for the technicians to become familiar with them. The Munich-based startup RE’FLEKT, which is part of the 5-HT network, has developed a solution for this: Augmented reality applications show employees step by step directly at the machine what to do next. In this interview Wolfgang Stelzle, CEO and co-founder, explains how RE’FLEKT’s AR solutions can help to significantly reduce the costs of repair and maintenance processes.
Which companies is RE’FLEKT aimed at?
Our customers come from the mechanical engineering, energy, automotive and transport industries, but also from the chemical, pharmaceutical and medical industries – for example BASF, Roche, Medtronic or Getinge. These are companies that manufacture hardware products and thus operate machines that require maintenance and repair.
Which problems frequently occur during the servicing and maintenance of machines?
Many machines are becoming increasingly complex in terms of electronics or functionalities. At the same time, there are not enough personnel with the appropriate knowledge to maintain and repair these complicated machines. Often the knowledge required for this is available somewhere in the company, but not at the place where it is needed. The situation is further complicated by demographic change: experienced employees who still know the machines inside out are gradually retiring. At the same time, the younger ones no longer stay with the company for 50 years, so it is difficult to train them intensively. If a machine no longer works, the technician on site can therefore in many cases not repair it directly himself. The complicated manual or digital manuals seldom lead to a solution to the problem, and call centre advice is often unsuccessful, so that in the end an expert must travel to the site to service or repair the machine. Not only because of the travel costs, but above all because of long machine downtimes, this approach causes high costs.
How can Augmented Reality improve maintenance and repair processes?
With our AR application REFLEKT ONE (Explanatory video) , we enable companies to convert manual or digital manuals and design data of machines into augmented reality instructions. When a technician wants to carry out a repair, the information he needs is projected step by step directly onto the machine. Using a smartphone, a tablet or AR-glasses, he is immediately shown where he needs to loosen a screw or check a tension, for example.
With our second application, REFLEKT Remote (Explanatory video), we connect technicians and experts in such a way that the expert sees the technician’s environment and can draw augmented instructions directly into the technician’s field of vision. In this way, the technician can immediately see what the expert wants to show him. This improves cooperation and makes it possible to solve problems immediately without the expert having to travel to the site. We also offer interactive AR applications that can be used for training purposes to get to know the technology of a machine better. All of this is about using effective training to better educate employees and train new workers faster, to speed up repair processes in the field and reduce machine downtime. At the same time, maintenance and repair errors are minimized, enabling our customers to save considerable costs.
Which application possibilities are particularly interesting for companies in the pharmaceutical industry?
An exciting use case is Operating Procedures – extensive, complex manuals for the setup and use of medical devices. Because these manuals are very difficult to understand, technicians can hardly learn the work procedures themselves, but are dependent on time-consuming training. In addition, the processes are very error-prone, as technicians often rely on their memory instead of looking up the manual. We help to digitize operating procedures with AR so that technicians can follow the instructions step by step on a mobile device. For example, Getinge uses our AR applications to train its employees, reducing human error by 90%.
Line changeovers are another interesting application area. If a production line has to be changed for a new product, it often takes many days or weeks. With our AR instructions, this process is optimized because workers are visually guided and always have the end result in mind. This speeds up the conversion by 25% and reduces the error rate by 40%. A digital audit trail can also be used to document all steps in detail.
What does a company need to develop such tailor-made AR applications with REFLEKT ONE or REFLEKT Remote?
On the user side, the most important thing is that employees have mobile devices (smartphones, tablets or smart glasses) that are connected to the Internet. Companies also need data from the technical information system (TIS), design data from the CAD system and data from the product lifecycle management system (PLM). RE’FLEKT provides the software for creating AR applications and also accompanies the implementation, which on the company side is usually done by technical writers with the support of product managers.
How was RE’FLEKT founded?
I worked as a customer consultant and project manager in a digital agency where we used augmented reality for marketing purposes from 2010 on. Together with my boss and two other partners, we decided in 2012 to set up RE’FLEKT out of the agency so that we could concentrate 100 percent on the technology. Over time, we have shifted our focus to AR applications for industry. We currently have a total of 50 employees at our headquarters in Munich and our branch office in San Francisco.
What are the next goals for RE’FLEKT?
We currently focus on the pharmaceutical and medical industry. Many companies are currently on the way to digital transformation. Moreover, this industry is one of the few that is only marginally affected by the current economic situation. Therefore we would like to offer solutions to pharmaceutical and medical companies and support their digitalization projects in the long term. In addition, we are currently working increasingly with partners such as Siemens to integrate our software seamlessly into existing solutions so that we can present a stronger offering on the market together with our partners.
What is your vision for the factory of the future?
We believe that in a few years everyone will be able to repair a machine even without special knowledge, because AR applications provide the necessary information for the next step. Therefore our vision is: “Anyone can become an expert!”
How did you come into contact with 5-HT?
The contact was established through BASF Venture Capital GmbH, because BASF is one of our investors. We found the ecosystem of 5-HT very exciting, especially because the companies involved are a perfect match for us. As part of the network we hope to get in touch with potential customers and learn more about their challenges. Furthermore, being a member of 5-HT is a great opportunity for us to be more visible in the market and to exchange ideas with other startups in the field.