The future of fixing: What field service means for us in the next 50 years

You probably haven’t noticed them, because why would you? They work behind the scenes, an almost imperceptible force that, almost like magic, fixes our society. Behind the cover of night, during lulls in traffic, riding in on a fleet of branded trucks … they save our cities from chaos, our airports from disaster and our homes from inconvenience. They’re the fixers, and they keep our world moving.

To be specific, the industry of fixing is actually called field service — and the technicians that make up its ranks are experts in engineering, automation, science and basic tinkering. The machines that run our lives (buses, dishwashers, planes, trains, power plants, oil rigs and the entire plumbing system) are fixed by field service technicians, ones who are dispatched at the drop of a hat to solve issues like downed power lines or defunct airplane parts.

But as technology advances further and machines evolve their ability to “think,” what will happen to this important industry? The future of fixing must evolve alongside technology, and so too will our army of fixers. The next 50 years of progress in our society means major changes for how it’s run — and how it’s fixed.

Machines that know they’ll break

All machines break down at some point. Airplane parts get replaced almost daily, and power lines need to be replaced more times than probably anyone would like to admit. The issue is that until recently, we didn’t know when these outages would occur. That’s probably why you’ve been stranded at the airport, sitting at your gate, waiting for maintenance on an airplane.

Until recently, fixing and maintaining machines typically looked like this: When a machine broke or a part malfunctioned, the manufacturer of said machine would dispatch a technician to take a look. Off she went with her truck and tool belt, out to the remote field or into the city to investigate. From there, after evaluating the machine, a part order would usually be issued and the technician would return another time to install the part. So it went, the long and not-particularly-optimized process of clipboards and steel-toed boots.

Today, however, the machines in question are being built with monitoring technology, cloud-based connections and diagnostic information that help field service teams stay abreast of changes. So now, a machine might alert the manufacturer when a part is performing less than optimally, so the legacy lengthy process can be circumvented. Eventually, by analyzing patterns and data, we’ll be able to predict exactly when these outages will occur, helping avoid downtime even further.

What about the fixers?

With all of this knowledge empowering technicians and the field service industry as a whole, it’s hard not to fear a reality where automation and data analysis takes jobs away from field service technicians. While the progress for society is obviously a boon, what happens to the fixers?

It’s clear that, like many other industries, field service will soon undergo some serious changes — and it too will need to prepare for them. Because these field technicians are the ones who know these machines most intimately, the opportunity to reskill and work alongside technology cannot be taken away. Because at the end of the day, applying the data analysis to a machine and making decisions on when to fix and when to replace, will still take a human — ideally one with a keen understanding of the past and future capabilities of the technology.

And as a new generation of technicians rises up — digital natives who have grown up with technology — the knowledge transfer from old guard to new guard can be facilitated by the technology itself. Using augmented reality to simulate repair settings, for instance, can help workers better understand automated maintenance while also facilitating the training of new team members.

It feels like it happened overnight — but all of a sudden, the machines that power our society have completely transformed. Now, instead of halting our world’s progress when they break down, trained professionals are able to fix, replace and ultimately increase our productivity as people and technology further and further intertwine. As the next 50 years progress, the fixers of our society will need to learn to work with technology to not only keep the present running smoothly, but to ensure that our future is optimized. The stakes are high, but one thing is for sure — the future of field service matters.

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