In the last decade, technology has been changing the face of manufacturing and it will certainly play an even greater role in the post COVID-19 world. While business and liquidity challenges that the automation industry is currently facing in these turbulent times are well-known, there are operational issues which need focused attention.
Productivity and efficiency are the key factors of optimal operations. While robotics, Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been in the forefront of technologies adopted for manufacturing automation in the last couple of years, Augmented Reality (AR) & Virtual Reality (VR) are now fast creating their own spaces in the last few years as a big support function to these trio of technologies.
The pandemic has already created a new way of remote working, and this is bound to remain as the new normal even after the pandemic is over. Collaboration beyond the flat screen is the new buzzword for implementing automation projects using AR/VR technologies. AR/VR technologies have been used in media and marketing during the last decade but now find active usage as an affective aid for planning & executing automation projects, including robotic automation.
AR/VR has been in use for a long time. However, there is still not widespread or enterprise-wide use of these technologies. Recent breakthroughs in these technologies have opened new avenues to scale-up their use across an enterprise, and moreover, the adoption of these technologies by even low and medium scale automation solution providers. We talk about some AR/VR use cases being exploited by automation solution providers.
Collaborative engineering & design
Design reviews with remote design centres or customers have been regular applications for AR/VR technologies over the last decade. However, their use was limited due to a considerable amount of effort to make the models VR-enabled. Though there were tools which helped in automating this process, it still required special skilled project teams to make the models VR-enabled. The other major constraint was difficulty in remote collaboration with immersive data. This required initial planning & set up to ensure that the collaboration experience was smooth.
The recent improvement in AR/VR technologies enables users to have instant collaboration, like a Zoom or Teams meeting. The presenter can initiate a meeting and just send the link over email to the other participants. There is no need for any software, data or app for the remote user. The remote user just needs a browser. The user clicks on the link and joins the presenter in an immersive collaborative way. Moreover, the models can also be automatically converted into VR-enabled models.
This ease-of-use technology has opened many opportunities for automation solution providers to use AR/VR technologies for engineering collaboration with both customers & suppliers before any component is actually manufactured. One of the common applications can be assembly check for interference, clearance etc. for a robot path. Earlier it was achieved through simulation, which does not necessarily instil confidence in the customer’s mind. Now, AR/VR offers an immersive experience, wherein the automation solution provider and the customer or the supplier can go around the designed solution in a virtual space and review the design, annotate if necessary and provide a feedback which is easier to understand & implement for the designer. AR/VR tools these days offer a full stack collaboration platform for reviewing the automation solution before it sees the light of day.
Ensuring productivity of installation & commissioning engineers implementing the automation solution at a customer site is a constant area of concern for the senior management. Product & solution training is one of the many ways of ensuring that the engineers have all the relevant knowledge to undertake the tasks on the shop floor or at the customer site. Traditional methods have been presentations or videos; however, these methods of instructions do not involve the participants. AR/VR have been found to greatly enhance training productivity. Their use for product & solution training had been limited due to the shortcomings mentioned earlier. A product, for example, a robot, can have many variants. So, creating training modules The advent of newer web-based AR/VR technologies is easy to use and does not require any special skilled workforce to create the training modules. The subject matter experts can for every product can be very costly.easily create modules using their standard machines in a matter of days if not hours. This has drastically reduced the total cost of ownership of these projects and thus, thousands of engineers can be easily trained using these technologies. Imagine the saving potential due to the reduction of prototypes, special videos, training rooms & other infrastructure. AR/VR now enables even remote training; for example, an instructor sitting thousands of kilometres away can train a classroom of robot programmers using an immersive training space, reducing training cost drastically.
Remote support using AR/VR has been on the rise recently. Many automation solution providers have either initiated pilot projects for remote support for maintenance engineers or are in the process of implementation. Travel restrictions due to the pandemic have accelerated the adoption of these technologies. However, these implementations are restricted to large solution providers due to the cost of AR headset equipment and the cost of building applications. Currently, some solution providers are using mobile-based video and messaging applications for remote support.
The newer technologies, however, support hybrid use. It is not necessary to have all the users wearing headsets. Some of the users can view/interact in a browser on their laptop or tablet. This can help small and medium automation solution providers to quickly adopt these technologies for remote support. The shortage of expert support engineers is a common problem with all these organisations. Hybrid AR/VR technologies can circumvent this dilemma by having expert engineers guide the automation engineer at the customer site through remote immersive collaboration. The expert engineer can not only explain through video but also demonstrate the instructions by animating with a model in a 3D workspace.
Automation for legacy processes
AR/VR have significant applications in industries undertaking process upgradation – automating legacy processes. Automating existing processes or a plant retrofit for brown field projects is an interesting use case. Most of these plants have old drawings which are not updated for years. Digital representation of the plants can be easily brought into a VR environment and super imposed with 3D models of automation equipment, like robots and other ancillary equipment. Virtually seeing the plant to scale can help resolve many fouling issues, thereby reducing the commissioning time of the equipment leading to major savings. It is observed that most of the projects bleed in the installation & commissioning phase and doing a virtual check of the automation equipment working helps ensure that the equipment works first time right after completing the plant retrofit.
In step with AR/VR
Though there are several proven use cases for AR/VR usage as an affective aid for automation solution providers, there has been hesitancy in adopting these technologies till now, since earlier we needed experts to manage the AR/VR pipeline, the access to the AR/VR space was clunky for users & deployment expensive for business. The device-specific apps & ecosystem also limited adoption. Hopefully, with the advent of a one-click CAD-agnostic conversion & optimisation and a light footprint collaboration in a web browser, automation solution providers will be more amenable to use these technologies as a mandatory tool to secure their solution before planning for the physical hardware. AR/VR also helps in giving immense confidence to customers of the automation solution that their investments are secure & solution reliability is assured.