August 2011

Long-range troubleshooting

Rugged video system connects experts and cuts downtime

By Richard Andrews

The multi-function camera and communication device allows experts to diagnose problems and lead repairs remotely | Photo courtesy of Librestream

When a problem arises on site and expert support is in another hemisphere, it is not such a small world after all. Getting those expert boots on the ground to provide the solution at the work site takes time, especially in the modern global industry where the parts, resources and people for a mining operation are sourced from around the world. The Onsight Video Collaboration System was created to close that distance and cut expensive downtime, allowing technical specialists to be a little nearer to two places at once.

Created by Winnipeg high-tech company Librestream, the system is based on a rugged, wireless camera device that provides audiovisual links between experts, supervisors, consultants and field operators around the globe. That means an engineer sitting in a Toronto office could help a foreman on an oil rig in Mexico repair a piece of equipment, step by step, in real time. And if a worker on the same rig were sick or injured, instant diagnosis could be available from a medical specialist in a hospital in another distant city.

Electrical engineer Kerry Thacher co-founded Librestream in 2003, after working with a large manufacturer of rugged handheld computing equipment. While there, he had become frustrated by the communication difficulties with technical partners and suppliers in the U.S., Japan and Taiwan. “We thought there might be some better way to collaborate over distance during development cycles, and created the Onsight system to do that,” says Thacher.

The system found a ready international market when production began in 2007. Since then, Librestream has sold thousands of mobile devices and the accompanying software. The main customers are mining, oil and gas and manufacturing companies in the U.S., Asia, Europe, Central and South America.

Designed for hard hat areas

“Most existing collaboration technology is aimed at people sitting at a desk or in the conference room,” Thacher explains. “That’s not what goes on in the mining industry. These are people out at difficult locations and they need special tools.”

The company aims to save customers time and money by bringing the problem to the expert, rather than the other way around. By way of illustration, Thacher cites the case of a power system that broke down in a large open pit copper mine in South America. The problem threatened to leave hundreds of workers standing idle, along with a plant worth billions of dollars. Instead, experts in the U.S. used the Onsight system, via a satellite link, to diagnose the fault. Local technicians were coached to make vital repairs and were trained to reduce the possibility of a further recurrence.

“Normally it would have taken three to four days, plus acclimatization time for a technical team to reach the remote mountain site,” says Thacher. “With Onsight, you don’t have to worry about getting on an airplane and losing productivity. By cutting physical travel you also reduce your company’s carbon footprint and lower risk exposure to employees. Some of the places where people are mining or drilling for oil are among the most hostile locations on earth.”

Limiting the need to travel, along with its risks and costs, can have a big impact on the bottom line. According to the Librestream CEO, Onsight usually pays for itself in just two uses – or even less.

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