Augmented reality (AR) technology has certainly hit the consumer mainstream, with games like Pokémon GO capturing the imagination of millions, and the technology being harnessed across sectors including retail, entertainment and advertising. Yet behind the consumer scenes, on the factory floor, AR is having an even bigger impact.
AR essentially involves adding layers of virtual content over a live camera feed. The user in question needs an interface – which might be their own smartphone or tablet, or a more specialist headset or tablet – and views a particular setting throughthat interface. In turn, that setting is augmented with additional information, whether text, video, graphics, audio or a combination.
So far, so theoretical. But how is AR technology actually being used on factory floors? There is a wealth of potential applications, and organisations ranging from Siemens to BMW, Fujitsu to Bosch, are taking advantage of them.
Product design and development
Perhaps one of the most exciting applications of AR in manufacturing settings lies in its ability to help designers and engineers come up with new ways of tackling problems, enhancing existing designs and checking the performance of new ideas. Ford, for example, uses Microsoft HoloLens to visualise full-scale models of proposed designs in 3D, which then enables them to iterate, improve and optimise designs for more quickly. Augmented reality applications can enable product designers to try out theories without having to go through a full physical process, increasing speed, accuracy and innovation.
Product assembly and quality checking
Once the manufacturing process is underway, AR technology can help operatives working on the production line to undertake more complicated and detailed processes than ever before. An AR application can, for example, provide on overlaid view to direct a worker in particular action. Or it can pull up text, audio or video instructions or advice to support them through particular tasks. Operatives are then able to work faster and more accurately, whilst also developing their skills and knowledge in a proactive way. ‘Digital twins’ of products or machinery can be generated within AR applications, so that quality and performance of the physical product can be compared and checked.
Once a product is manufactured, sold and out in the field, the applications of AR technology are not over. Porsche, for example, uses ARto identify and fix problems with faulty vehicles, even if the engineer has no idea where to begin. AR tablets and smart glasses can enable engineers to carry out repairs and maintenance even on equipment that they are less familiar with, by providing guidance and instruction as they go, whilst Thyssenkrupp uses Microsoft HoloLensto enable its maintenance engineers to visualise and identify problems with elevators ahead of a job.
Training and development
All of these applications illustrate how AR can provide workers at all stages in the manufacturing process, from design and development through to repairs and maintenance, with a far more interactive, engaging and supportive working experience. In turn, these benefits can be harnessed for training and development purposes. AR applications make it easier to demonstrate particular actions or point out complex parts to trainees. They can form the basis for interactive and gamified learning, or structured, on-the-job training programmes whereby employees complete tasks on their AR devices whilst they are working. Holographic renderings of physical components enable trainees to explore complex products and equipment digitally as well as physically. The possibilities for an ‘active learning’ approach to employment are rich and diverse.
These are just some of the diverse ways in which augmented reality can be harnessed in manufacturing settings, powering genuinely smart factories. AR enables the agile, creative and experimental approaches which are at the heart of new product development, and the careful quality control which is at the heart of existing product optimisation. Is your organisation ready to participate?