When it comes to adopting new technologies, look no further than the home and the next generation of end users. I was visiting friends recently, and their kids were walking around the living room, virtually climbing a rock wall together while bumping into furniture. It became clear to me how ready this technology is and how future generations will expect its use in the workplace. It made me rethink its application in today’s manufacturing environment.
With some research, it becomes clear that the technology is already here and ready for use in manufacturing. It’s estimated that augmented reality (AR) users will reach 1.73 billion by 2024, with much expansion outside of gaming and into practical business use cases. So what are some of the practical use cases being deployed in manufacturing? Are these use cases worth the investment? And are there more exciting or forward-looking use cases for organizations looking to leap ahead in this space?
As I dug into the existing reasons one might leverage augmented reality solutions, I was blown away by the practicality of it and the partnerships available connecting devices with software, collaboration platforms, and data integration.
Collaboration is perhaps the most mature and viable use case, with many variants that deliver a reasonable return on investment for any business. These use cases were also heavily utilized during the pandemic and are now “battle-tested.”
For example, many clients have packaged disparate technologies, including a rolling cart, laptop, camera, and microphone. This cart is rolled around the facility to provide tours to external clients, partners, or employees—but it has its limitations. First, most factories are limited to who from the plant tour can participate in this collaboration session, limiting it to the person closest to the cart. Second, carts are limited to open spaces and flat surfaces. This approach quickly fails if a tour requires navigating tight spaces, visualizing factory equipment, or climbing stairs.
Now imagine using a hands-free augmented reality device with integration to a collaboration platform like Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex. You have a whole different experience for employees and remote guests. In this scenario, all key employees can wear a headset to hear, speak, and visualize any participant content—both physical and virtual. Because the devices are hands-free, tours are not bounded by any physical limitation, allowing the tour to go anywhere a person can. And best of all, these solutions enable virtual attendees to zoom, highlight areas of interest, interact, and share information with onsite attendees, making the collaborative experience more productive for all involved.
Beyond collaboration, native augmented reality use cases and solutions are what the technology was intended for. In these use cases, the devices and software stitch together the real world with the digital to create a “mashup” experience for end users. This allows manufacturers to deliver hands-free interactive solutions that provide more than work instructions or insight about the production process.
These solutions integrate data from various sources to convey comprehensive insight into the working of facilities, machines, or products. Imagine incorporating data from PLCs, sensors, business systems, alerts, safety warnings, work order data, and SOPs into a single pane of glass that is easily visible and integrated with the physical environment. Try doing that on a traditional computer while assembling a vehicle, satellite, or medical device—or while walking the factory floor.
Imagine the ability to transform how employees collaborate, integrate data, and improve processes all through a single augmented platform. This is where the real power of augmented reality will lead us into the future and become more critical, given the challenges with the workforce, skillset management, and keeping pace with change across product design, production, and client experience.
Top Collaboration Use Cases
- Augmented Troubleshooting and Repair: Returning the factory to operational status is always a top concern—and when equipment fails, it’s crucial to get engineers or third-party resources working to diagnose and repair failed equipment quickly. With augmented troubleshooting and repair, organizations can get the right resources in place virtually from anywhere in the world to speed return to operation. Engaging experts remotely can save time, speed resolution, eliminate travel and expenses, and possibly limit the disruption to an employee’s personal life.
- Augmented Client or Partner Tours: For some manufacturers, it’s important to walk potential clients or partners through their factories to demonstrate compliance, adherence to standards, and maturity and to make third parties comfortable with their ability to produce. Whatever the reason, bringing remote individuals through a virtual tour is much easier. This can be especially helpful in production labs or environments where guests might represent obvious challenges like a risk to health, gowning, or space constraints—making a virtual augmented tour more favorable and practical to all parties involved.
- Augmented Kaizen and Continuous Improvement: Not all resources exist onsite. With a process improvement initiative, it’s sometimes essential to bring many different resources together to assess a current process and make recommendations based on observations. With augmented collaboration platforms, any help can be part of the team regardless of location.
- Augmented Audits: Many organizations are subject to audits as part of Sarbanes-Oxley or industry standards groups. This often requires the presence of a third party to ensure inventory, facility, security, or factory audits are truthfully and adequately conducted. The pandemic demonstrated how complex requirements such as this can be, but with augmented collaboration, any organization can conduct audit activities as usual with remote auditors shadowing job roles via augmented solutions.
- 3D Work Instructions: Move away from the desk or kiosk-based work instructions to deliver 3D operating procedures that enhance the experience for employees by integrating work instructions, steps, data collections, and visual overlays atop actual physical products to enhance assembly, quality assurance, or field maintenance activities.
- 3D + IoT Insight: Fuse 3D and IoT data into a single experience for any job role in the factory. With the ability to look at a physical machine, building, or product, an employee can quickly visualize sensor data, inner workings, components, and health conditions with data from within the environment.
Hand-held AR Devices
There is a wide range of augmented reality devices on the market—their differences are more akin to their use cases and the environments used within than anything else. Various form factors include hand-held mobile devices like tablets and hands-free devices like augmented reality headsets.
Perhaps the most practical of devices are mobile phones and tablets. Many of today’s devices come with high-end cameras and augmented reality accelerators designed to optimize the end-user experience and maximize the functionality of applications running on these devices. With a wide range of mobile devices available, including commercial, rugged, ultra-rugged, and even intrinsically safe or sanitizable, these devices are a practical way to initiate early augmented reality initiatives or proof of concepts. Additionally, these mobile devices can be used by employees for many other job functions like training, actionable insight, digital forms, and workflow, accessing business systems, capturing subject matter knowledge, and much more.
Hands-free AR Devices
Unlike their counterparts, hands-free devices are designed specifically for augmented reality use cases. They allow employees to perform job duties without the restrictions of holding another device, make it easy to fuse their work environment and digital universe into one, and provide a great deal of hands-free interaction into a fully smart mobile device creating a truly immersive experience.
There are top-of-mind devices like Google Glass and Microsoft Halolens. Still, there are others, including RealWear, Movario, and Lenovo—each offering a range of augmented reality devices to fit your budget, capabilities, and regulatory requirements.
For example, some brands offer a single glass piece, while others provide dual. Some offer intrinsically safe and rugged versions designed to withstand the rigors of manufacturing or regulated environments where sanitization or explosive risk must be mitigated. Some are wired to a computer and connect to a smart device via Bluetooth; others are self-contained smart devices that support wireless and cellular connectivity. Selecting the “right” device comes down to the use cases, job roles, and the environment.
Yes. Robots are also being utilized. Not all use cases are ideal for an employee (whether hand-held or hands-free) to provide virtual access to remote resources for extended periods. For this reason, remote-controlled robots integrated with augmented reality collaboration platforms can create an alternative approach to connecting remote resources with access to physical locations. It’s beneficial for tours, industrial engineering assessments, and kaizen events giving the remote resource freedom to virtually conduct their jobs onsite.
Connection has a team focused on innovative solutions using robots, augmented work, and integration with business systems to help our clients with the evolving way we work and automate activities anywhere in a facility.
Connection Can Help
Augmented Reality is here, and it’s full of practical use cases that can deliver business results, augment and enhance the workforce, and transform how work gets done. If your company is considering augmented reality solutions, engage Connection’s Manufacturing Practice. Discover the practical use cases of augmented reality in manufacturing, from remote collaboration to virtual blueprint overlays and more.