Technologies and connected ecosystems that have emerged as a result of the fourth industrial Revolution (4IR) are causing leading manufacturers to turn to interconnected, open systems that harness the power of data to deliver a host of benefits including cost savings, unprecedented accuracy and quality and the opportunity to customise products far more easily.
As this technology progresses, so too does the potential of the manufacturing sector. Automated concepts such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things (IoT) are becoming commonplace among manufacturers across the world and many are now utilising real-time concepts such as virtual and augmented reality to take their production processes to the next level.
Augmented reality (AR) turns a surrounding environment into an interactive realm that can take any form. Whilst it is often thought of as an application for the gaming industry, its potential is becoming known across many industries, including the manufacturing sector.
AR can facilitate efficient operations by cutting down production downtime, quickly identifying problems and keeping all the services and processes running smoothly. For example, within the warehouse environment, Virtual Reality – a subsector of AR – allows manufacturers to combine virtual model data of machinery, products or renovation plans with data captured from the existing environment. The augmented view creates a virtual environment in which the viewer can explore various options in either a new factory layout or how a new system would work, without making any tangible changes.
Despite its infancy, VR technology is already a rapidly growing 4IR application in the manufacturing sector. Estimates valued the Virtual Reality market within manufacturing industry at $924.7mn in 2018 and expect it to reach $14,887mn by 2026, with a CAGR of 39.2% during the period.
Part of the appeal of both AR, and VR in particular, among manufacturers is its ability to provide a cost-effective way to mitigate risk and expedite operations. For example, in the warehouse environment, VR can help teams locate manufactured products using augmented reality glasses that identify pick points in the warehouse allowing them to quickly find products.
VR can also allow manufacturers to work faster. For example, augmented reality software developer Vital Enterprises allows engineers to read manuals as they work as Ash Eldritch, CEO and co-founder explains: “We break down work instructions along with associated technical drawings and even video from the last person who did the procedure and put all that onto AR glasses. That means you can keep your hands on your task and you don’t need to walk over to a work station to check something.”
AR also allows manufacturers to significantly reduce time. For example, aircraft manufacturer, Lockheed uses AR to allow engineers to work up to 30% faster and with an accuracy of 96%. By using AR glasses to combine depth sensors, cameras, and motion sensors that overlay images into real world, engineers can see renderings of bolts, cables, part numbers and instructions on how to assemble a specific component instantaneously allowing each worker to improve their efficiency significantly.
However, utilising this technology in the manufacturing sector is not a new idea. In 2015, German automobile company Bosch partnered with German AR specialist Reflekt GmbH, one of the most renowned companies in the area of industrial AR solutions, and since they have been working together to develop the “Common Augmented Reality Platform (CAP)”; the world’s first software platform for the industrialization of AR – an AR app for manufacturers, essentially.
Using the CAP, highly complex AR applications and their digital and visual contents can be integrated quickly and easily, including diagnostic procedures, for example. The software integrated into existing IT infrastructures and data systems to deliver real-time text information, circuit diagrams, videos and augmented 3D animations facilitating seamless industrialisation of AR applications for the first time and has since grown from strength to strength across the industry.
AR systems also allow manufacturers to offer faster and more efficient maintenance of products post-sale. For example, German elevator manufacturer thyssenkrupp technicians have been using Microsoft’s HoloLens technology as a tool in service operations since 2016. Using HoloLens, service technicians can visualize and identify problems with elevators ahead of a job, and have remote, hands-free access to technical and expert information when on site. Being able to use AR to triage service requests ahead of a maintenance visit and allowing hands-free remote holographic guidance when on site has reduced the average length of thyssenkrupp’s service calls by up to four times.
Quality Assurance is a vital part of manufacturing and AR is helping support the production process to raise quality levels to their maximum. For instance, Porsche is using AR as a tool in the quality assurance process in a pilot project at an assembly plant in Leipzig, Germany. In essence, Porsche’s quality professionals take photos of parts or assemblies on vehicles under inspection and compare those images to ones provided by the company’s suppliers via an augmented reality overlay. Features that are out of specification can be highlighted by the overlay, enabling the Porsche technicians to identify the issue quickly and intuitively. The company plans that eventually, cameras on the production floor will be directly linked to Porsche’s cloud-based parts database in order to enable real-time analysis of parts and assembled components, reducing inspection times significantly.
AR is also an incredibly effective training tool. VR provides a safe, yet highly realistic simulator for military operations, aircraft pilots, maritime operations or advanced surgery. In manufacturing, VR allows operators to train in assembly tasks before operating on the real shop-floor. As Milan Kocic, Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence’s business development manager for product experience and innovation explains: “AR allows you to feed training information right on top of the actual parts and assemblies. So you can start mixing the execution with training, which ultimately makes the equipment easier to learn and use. That’s especially important given the general trend in manufacturing toward using less skilled labour than before.”
AR and the technology emerging from Industry 4.0 is changing manufacturing, allowing manufacturers to combine sensors, cloud data storage, software solutions and all types of AR in order to reduce costs, increase productivity and boost customer satisfaction. Whilst the technology is becoming more widely used, it remains in its infancy in terms of potential. Therefore, the factory of tomorrow is likely to work very differently from the factory of today.