What is augmented reality (AR)? Two particularly popular examples are Pokémon Go and Snapchat – both applications which enable users to overlay digital imagery and effects on the physical world. Whether through interactive computer-generated characters or special effects and image filters, AR enables the real world to blend with the digital – and, unlike virtual reality (VR), you don’t need a special headset to experience it.
Those examples, however, are consumer-focused. What about corporate uses? One sector in which AR has particular promise – and, indeed, is already realising a range of tangible benefits – is the manufacturing industry.
How, then is AR actually incorporated into manufacturing settings? It can actually be a more straightforward process than you might expect.
At the simplest end of the spectrum, AR apps can be downloaded onto ordinary smartphones and tablets. When the device scans a QR code or similar on a piece of hardware, data are automatically pulled from the cloud and additional text, images or videos are layered on top of the image on the device.
At the more immersive end of the scale, staff can be kitted out with AR glasses, which use a mixture of cameras, motion sensors and depth sensors to generate a highly responsive image of different areas of the factory floor, over which interactive effects can be layered.
This technology can then be harnessed to revolutionise all stages of the manufacturing process, from production itself through to maintenance and support, and staff training and development. Here’s how:
AR is particularly transformative in the manufacture of highly complex electrical and mechanical products, in which hundreds of thousands of separate components need to be united in a precise – but specific – sequence. What’s more, when each product is updated, the instructions for production change slightly. As such, maintaining – and following – manual or paper-based instructions is extremely laborious and even error-prone.
However, AR glasses can make instructions visible at the edge of workers’ field of vision at all times, updated centrally and automatically whenever the production process changes. Meanwhile, assembly assistance applications can use projected images and videos to show the next stage in a process, or highlight the exact point at which an action needs to be taken.
All this enables production and assembly to take place more rapidly and more accurately than before, and top-level changes to be implemented in a centralised and logical fashion. The result is a highly efficient and precise production line.
AR doesn’t just need to be applied to the product of a factory floor – it can also be applied to the machinery and equipment that constitute that factory floor.
The same AR glasses or camera technology can be used to enable maintenance engineers to pull up specific instructions and background information for a particular piece of equipment while doing their maintenance rounds. These can vary from the simple and general – instructions on how to change the oil in a particular engine – to the sophisticated and precise – the service and performance history of a particular piece of equipment, and recommendations for how to manage it. Such applications can be integrated with third-party technical support services too.
In turn, this enables manufacturing organisations to take a more proactive and strategic approach to maintenance and support, avoiding unnecessary manual checks and resolving small problems before they escalate into major issues. Internal staff are empowered to take control of equipment when third-party support might have previously been called in.
‘Learn by doing’ goes the mantra, and yet this can be cost-prohibitive when it comes to expensive manufacturing processes. AR, however, can enable a far closer relationship between abstract training and the actual manufacturing process, enabling staff to draw on superimposed imagery and video for demonstrations and user guides. When a new piece of kit is installed or an existing one updated, training can take place on the factory floor.
AR, then, enables manufacturing staff to get closer to the hardware they use and the products they create. The result is a more seamless relationship between employees and equipment – and that can have a truly revolutionary impact.
While challenges in deploying AR remain, pioneering organizations, including Amazon, General Electric, Mayo Clinic, and the U.S. Navy, are already seeing a stunning impact on quality, productivity, and other measures of performance. This article provides a road map for how companies should deploy AR and lays out the critical choices companies will face in integrating AR into strategy and implementing it.
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