Unlike other commercial property insurers, FM Global’s business model is built around the concept of sending engineers out to conduct rigorous risk assessments of client sites. So what do you do during a pandemic when strict travel restrictions are in place and clients don’t want visitors anyway? Welcome to the world of remote engineering.

FM Global has had remote servicing capability for a long time, but this has only been used in situations where the location of the client site posed a health or safety risk. Globally, engineers conducted 49,000 site visits in 2020 – of which 15,000 were remote. Prior to COVID-19 crisis, our engineers were conducting 20 or 30 virtual site visits a year.

Here in Australia, FM Global has a team of 50 engineers spread around the country. About one-third of them spent much of 2020 trapped in Melbourne’s lockdown but with every challenge comes opportunity.

“If COVID disappeared tomorrow, we’ve already learned that virtual engineering works really well for some clients and certain types of site visit,” FM Global’s VP Operations Engineering Manager, Paul May, says.

“Even where we can get out to see them, we’re still doing parts of the visit via video. Visits usually conclude with a wrap-up discussion in the boardroom, but now we’re waiting until the next day or next week to have those conversations. It gives people more time to process information and removes the unnecessary risk of having 10 people together in a room.

“That’s not to say this will replace ‘boots on the ground’ engineering – especially when you think about complex, high risk sites like mines or power stations – because all of your senses are at play in environments like that. But routine project visits at sites with a lower risk profile could easily be done remotely.”

This new way of operating requires company directors and leadership teams to shift their thinking to some degree. For those who have signed up as FM Global clients, the third-party validation of risk mitigation practices is a big part of the value proposition. They want engineers onsite when it matters to provide the peace of mind their business is paying for.

But there are many benefits associated with switching to remote engineering where it makes sense. It removes the cost of flying engineers into rural or remote locations for site inspections, which has the added attraction of reducing environmental impact. It can allow engineers to be on site almost immediately in certain situations where time is a critical factor.

May estimates that reducing the amount of time his team spends travelling around Australia and New Zealand, from six per cent to four per cent, would be the equivalent of increasing headcount by one full-time engineer.

It also means that company directors and executive leadership teams no longer have to block out two days in their diary to take part in engineering inspections, because they are now broken up into bite-sized chunks of time over a period of days or weeks.

Technology plays an important role in adding to FM Global’s remote engineering capabilities. It recently signed a partnership with a commercial-grade mapping company which provides cloud-based access to aerial imagery captured by its aviation fleet. It’s high-resolution images get updated every couple of months instead of every couple of years and provides invaluable local area info.

In the event of a major weather event, like severe flooding in and around Brisbane, the commercial mapping company updates its images of the region within 24 hours. Insurers use this imagery to identify which clients need help, and which routes to use when heading to a site in order to avoid road closures.

This hasn’t been required in Australia during the pandemic, but FM Global has used the technology to identify losses suffered by US clients during Hurricane Laura. It had this knowledge before hearing anything from the affected clients, prioritising claims and engineering support where they were needed most.

FM Global has launched a Remote Engineering app during the pandemic. This enables a site manager to show a remote engineer around their site, using the camera on their mobile phone. The engineer might ask the site manager to measure the distance between two pieces of machinery or ask questions about what they see.

“This is as good as you can get without actually being onsite,” May says. “It’s much better than asking somebody to take photos of a warehouse while you’re on a videocall meeting. It’s very helpful on large sites because the engineer can see exactly where the site manager is walking using their GPS coordinates.

“And it reduces the need to attend fire pump tests in remote locations such as Mount Isa. The app can be used to capture images, take notes and produce reports so we have high expectations for it.”

FM Global has written new business during the pandemic without one of its engineers ever setting foot on site. In one instance, it held a dozen meetings spread out over a month with representatives from a glass furnace.

This approach would have been unthinkable until recently, but breaking the process down made it more palatable for the client and made each meeting more clearly focused on a specific topic like maintenance. The engineers reported being able to go deeper because they had more time to pore over test reports, inspection records and other information supplied by the client.  

Expect remote risk engineering at FM Global to continue after the pandemic. In three years, the company hopes to collect 60% of all data before an engineer gets on site, and it plans to allow subject matter experts to virtually join on-site risk assessments.

Whatever else the post-pandemic future holds, there seems little risk in assuming that remote engineering is here to stay.

An article based on this blog post appeared in Insurance News