Giulio Ricci used to practically live out of his suitcase. He reels off a list of countries: “Japan, Brazil, South Africa, USA … Except for Australia, I’ve been almost everywhere.” That means wherever customers of Fabio Perini, the market leader in machines for manufacturing and processing tissue products, operate. All those places from where they call to say, “Lucca, we have a problem. Things are at a standstill.”
Ricci and three colleagues provide customer support from Fabio Perini’s headquarters in Lucca, Italy. They can be reached around the clock if ever a paper web tears, a motor malfunctions or a warning light flashes somewhere in the world and the local technicians can’t deal with the problem. “Machines are constantly becoming more complex,” Ricci says. “Today it often happens that several engineers are responsible for a single machine. Just a few years ago, only one engineer was needed. But today a single person can no longer know every detail.” Meanwhile, some machines have already been in operation for up to 40 years — and experts like Ricci are needed to get them going again. Ricci can correct many malfunctions via telephone, Skype or e-mail, but some problems are too complicated to solve in these ways. “In two cases out of five, I used to have to travel to our customers — and sometimes I’d work there for only a very short time,” he says.
This situation will soon be a thing of the past, thanks to an innovation that Ricci proudly demonstrates. On his computer display, he’s looking into the open switching cabinet of a packaging machine. He picks up his mouse, draws a red circle around one of the switches, and speaks into the microphone of his headset: “Take a look here and see if the cable is broken.” A hand instantly appears on the display and reaches for the cable. It seems as though it’s Ricci’s hand, but it actually belongs to a colleague who is standing at this moment in front of a machine in the production hall — 200 meters away on the factory grounds. “He’s seeing what I see, and I’m seeing what he sees,” Ricci explains. The technician in the production hall is wearing augmented-reality glasses that weigh only 600 grams and are called Weareable Glasses. Cameras in the eyeglass frame transmit the wearer’s field of view to the display of Ricci’s computer. And whatever Ricci draws on his display with his mouse is transmitted back and projected onto the eyeglass lenses. The circle appears in front of the machine operator’s eyes and shows him where he needs to intervene.
Thanks to his Weareable Glasses, Ricci can work from his desk to guide not only his colleagues in the production hall nearby but also the employees of customers all over the world. “Through this technology, Fabio Perini is starting to play a new role,” says the Global Customer Service Director, Gianfranco Agnusdei. The industrial park where Fabio Perini has its headquarters is already known as the “Silicon Valley of Tissue.” The company, which is the market leader in this sector, now aims to give this nickname a deeper meaning. “We are still a machine manufacturing company,” says Agnusdei, “but in order to optimally respond to our customers’ future needs we’re systematically taking advantage of all the options offered by digitization.”
In the field of machine construction, digitization makes it possible for machines to “communicate” with one another and for algorithms to detect early on when the components of a machine could wear out. Digitization also means that the services related to machines are changing and expanding. An important point for Fabio Perini is the fact that today top-level customer support is already a distinguishing feature that makes companies appealing to existing and new customers — and this trend is growing.
lWe are still a machine manufacturing company, but we are taking advantage of all the options offered by digitization.r
Gianfranco Agnusdei, Global Customer Service Director of Fabio Perini
That’s why Fabio Perini introduced the Weareable Helmet technology back in 2016 in order to make its customer support activities more efficient. The Weareable Helmet consisted of a virtual reality helmet, a vest equipped with lots of electronics, and a battery belt, which was still very heavy in those days. “For some customers, it looked like a science fiction film,” Agnusdei recalls. But the practical utility of this futuristic outfit was impressive.
Many customers are now using this helmet. The Weareable Glasses that Fabio Perini presented to the public for the first time in 2018 are much lighter than the original model and already one generation ahead in terms of technical sophistication. The wearer can select menu points on the display in front of his eyes simply by looking at them directly. If he lets his gaze rest on an item, the software registers it as a click and opens up the information “stored” behind it, such as a set of PDFs with operating instructions or animated videos. In this way a technician standing in front of a machine can see how the mechanisms inside it work. “This is another giant step forward,” says Ricci, the support expert. Soon he will even be able to attach “tags” to the machines. These are virtual notes that open up as soon as the Weareable Glasses’ wearer looks in their direction.
The first interested companies got in touch directly after the presentation of this new service tool, and the first opportunity to put it into practice occurred after only two weeks. The paper webs in the machines of a customer in Turkey had been stretched too far, and they tore. “There could be lots of causes for that. In the past, we had to check out each possibility individually,” says Ricci. But with the Weareable Glasses, the procedure was different. When the local machine operator wearing the glasses transferred his own gaze at the machine to Ricci’s display, Ricci immediately noticed something. The paper reel seemed to be blocked. That made the tension too high and the paper kept tearing again and again. “Find out why the reel is blocked,” said Ricci to his colleague. Half an hour later the problem was solved. And this half hour saved the customer a long downtime, because Ricci did not have to travel to the company in Turkey.
“With this new technology we are reducing machine downtimes to a minimum, and our customers’ productivity is growing. This means we’re offering genuine added value,” says Agnusdei. “For the sake of our customers, we are combining the best aspects of our technology leadership, our know-how, and our sector experience with the opportunities that digitization offers for promoting innovation. This is the direction in which we are going.”
The Digital Transformation Officer of the Business Area Tissue has been supporting these processes since February. In regular future workshops on the company grounds in Lucca, employees from various departments meet with experts from start-ups and universities as well as other partners to develop new solutions. “Our Business Area stands for the future-oriented blending of engineering expertise and digital technology,” says Agnusdei. “We want to demonstrate to our customers again and again that we are the best company in the sector in terms of technology and customer support. And with the help of digital solutions we’ll be able to offer them the best solutions in the future as well.”
Many of these solutions are changing the way the company interacts with its customers. “Pretty soon, I guess I won’t be traveling as much as I used to,” says Ricci with a smile. But one thing will stay the same: “We will continue to offer our comprehensive expert knowledge to help technicians directly on site. But now we’ll be doing it much faster.”