Augmented reality and the smart factory

How manufacturers use mixed reality tools to troubleshoot, increase efficiency and train employees

Images courtesy of PMMI/Unsplash
Images courtesy of PMMI/Unsplash

Characterized by a fusion of technologies that blur the lines between the physical and digital, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is spreading across the manufacturing world. As a component of this revolution, a growing number of suppliers are using augmented reality (AR) to improve operations in workforce training and equipment maintenance. AR is a technologically enhanced version of reality created by using technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device, such as smart goggles or a smartphone camera. The goggles are often voice-controlled, leaving wearers with both hands free. 

Statista estimates the AR market was worth $5.91 billion in 2018 and that it will reach more than $198.7 billion by 2025. The technology naturally has a stronghold in the video games and entertainment sector, but a growing number of manufacturing suppliers, including large automated equipment manufacturers, are utilizing the technology to provide their employees and customers with virtual hands-on instruction for operating machinery, troubleshooting and conducting repairs. In fact, 10% of the Fortune 500 companies have already begun exploring shopping and operation applications for AR. Gartner predicts that by 2020, 20% of large enterprises will evaluate and adopt augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality solutions as part of their digital transformation strategy. 

Training and maintenance

The "model-based digital twin" is an increasingly popular use for AR technology in manufacturing. The digital twin is a clone of the physical asset, providing a dynamic, self-teaching model to optimize performance in conjunction with an industrial internet of things (IIoT) platform. The combination of machine learning and physics-based modeling enables engineers to create entire AR experiences that show technicians how to service factory floor machines. Using the digital twin, a technician can repair a faulty device in record time and with greater accuracy.

In-person training can be expensive and requires that the equipment be readily available for student training. Companies can use AR tools to provide real-time visual guidance and can connect students with teachers without the cost and logistics of getting everyone in the same room. For example, Bosch Rexroth, a global provider of power units and controls used in manufacturing, uses an AR-enhanced visualization called Hägglunds InSight Live to demonstrate the design and capabilities of its smart, connected CytroPac hydraulic power unit. The AR application allows customers to see 3-D representations of the unit’s internal pump and cooling options in multiple configurations and how the subsystems fit together. 

Technicians can also take advantage of smart goggles’ video and photo recording abilities to keep track of progress and keep tabs on errors. Goggles can capture hands-free photos in seconds, and those images can be submitted to off-site teams for troubleshooting help.

Improving productivity

Incorporating AR into industrial processes has proven to boost worker productivity. For example, GE healthcare warehouse workers use Skylight, an industrial augmented reality application platform from Upskill, to kit and completely pick list orders up to 46% faster. Upskill provides augmented reality software for the industrial workforce, and it boasts an average worker performance boost of 32% for Skylight customers.  

In GE’s application, Skylight connects to warehouse systems to get real-time information on an item location by connecting to smart warehouse systems. It then gives workers easy-to-read instructions for where to locate items throughout the building. The previously paper-based process, where workers flipped through printed orders to locate parts and waded through depleted stock locations, is now efficient and digitized. 

In another use case, Lockheed Martin used Microsoft HoloLens headsets to view holographic renderings of an aircraft’s parts and the instructions on how to assemble them. Microsoft HoloLens offers mixed reality solutions to increase communication and improve efficiency. The AR technology reduced assembly time by 30%, and digitizing the workflow helped Lockheed Martin increase engineering efficiency to 96%. 

Evaluating the investment

These case studies make a strong argument for AR’s ability to improve manufacturing operations, but manufacturers still may wonder if augmented reality is worth the investment. Companies considering investing in AR should be strategic, approaching the opportunity by establishing the bottom-line value first. Approaching digital with a clear vision and a phased road map, and with a focused ecosystem of technology partners, will help maximize the return on investment in new technology. Workforce training and equipment maintenance applications for AR have the potential to help companies get ahead of the capabilities gap and build the culture to sustain that lead. 

Bryan Griffen is director, industry services, PMMI The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies.

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