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AR/VR Immersive workflows: The use of AR & VR in manufacturing

Jan 7, 2020

Virtual & Augmented Reality technologies have a significant place in the manufacturing cycle and are bringing real benefits to businesses on a whole host of levels. This article looks at where VR & AR are currently being used by manufacturers, what the near future holds, the current impact of technologies and the next phase of development, application and usage.

Virtual Reality (VR) in particular is nothing new to large-scale manufacturing. Early adopter companies such as Ford, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been using this technology for decades. But with the relatively recent development of new, more affordable and better performing hardware and software, the pace of adoption across the manufacturing sector has increased rapidly. Add to this the dawn of a suite of Augmented Reality (AR) devices and applications over the last few years and the scene has been set for a real revolution in immersive manufacturing. Many manufacturers are now seeing the benefits both, Augmented and Virtual Reality can offer in an industrial environment. From design and visualisation in premanufacture, right through to enhanced worker guidance and training during the production process, new and improved ways of using the technologies across business lines are constantly being piloted and deployed across enterprise.

Design and visualisation

Both VR and AR bring incredible opportunities for product design teams to accurately shape and test their designs before any physical materials are brought into the process. Gone is the need for clay models or other expensive prototypes. Creating 3D assets in VR can deliver extremely accurate representations of real-life products before a piece of metal is cut, a screw is tightened, or a bolt is fixed.

In industries such as aerospace and automotive, as design reviews take place, the opportunity to test ergonomics and safety features is hugely improved with the use of virtual environments. Most of the leading OEMs now rely heavily on the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) to enable their design teams to continually test and adapt designs with incredible accuracy. The immersive nature of CAVEs and the ability to create digital twin allows for a much more collaborative approach to design, which delivers real benefits. As Elizabeth Baron, who leads Advanced Visualisation and VR at Ford Motor Company, said on a recent VR Intelligence webinar, “Collaboration is the single most beneficial thing that the executive leaders at Ford saw the potential and promise of AR and VR in. Globally connected collaborative working is what really sold the technology and has provided the biggest ROI in our company.”

AR on the assembly line

Any product manufacturing involves putting together multiple components (often hundreds or thousands) in a precise sequence as quickly as possible. This is true whether one is manufacturing televisions or car engines, and every new product requires a new set of assembly instructions. Emerging AR applications give new life to delivering real-time instructions to workers on the front line and can provide the opportunity for guidance on all tasks and overlay images to make assembly more accurate. Using HMDs or glasses, instructions and support can always be in a worker’s field of view; enabling hands-free operation and minimising the need to check in at workstations, all of which increases productivity. Rich Rabbitz, Technology Lead, Lockheed Martin, details, “AR adds to the knowledge of the person working – whatever point they’re working at on [the] assembly line. They have this added augmented data that they can use when they’re doing their particular task. It’s really proving to be critical to get performance from people.”

New workforce recruitment, training & knowledge retention

Because of the immersive and realistic nature of VR, it’s very well placed to enable companies to create real life scenarios and situations that would either be impossible – or very costly – to replicate in real life. In an industrial setting, GE is taking advantage of this. Speaking with the Wall Street Journal last year, Julie Grzeda, Director of Global Leadership Programs and University Relations, General Electric, revealed that GE has started using VR to improve its employer brand and showcase its tech-forward positioning with millennials and other audiences. Potential candidates at college and recruiting events can use a VR headset to experience one of the company’s new trains rushing across the plains or the technology behind its undersea oil and gas operations.

Once in place, AR and VR can speed the onboarding of new workers and improve worker productivity, by offering more immersive, on-the-job training. Also, glasses that project video, graphics and text can visually guide a worker through assembly or maintenance tasks.

Together with providing companies an opportunity to showcase work to potential employees and on-board workers better, AR and VR also give them the opportunity to retain the knowledge of an aging workforce. No longer does an expert technician need to be in place to train and oversee every technician or machinist, companies can now use AR technology to supplement their employees’ existing knowledge – potentially even with engineering expertise delivered via telepresence. Put simply, with the right application of AR on the production floor, training becomes truly ‘on the job’. You can feed training information right on top of the actual parts and assemblies. So, you can start mixing the actual delivery of tasks directly with training, which ultimately makes the equipment easier to learn and use.

Ongoing maintenance, error detection and quality assurance

Tied into training and operational usage of AR and VR is the opportunity to use it for ongoing maintenance and error detection. Mark Sage, Executive Director, AREA, reveals a Newport News Shipbuilding reports, that states a 96% saving in time on their inspections since they’ve started incorporating AR into the process. Other examples include Thyssenkrupp, the elevator manufacturer who provide technicians with HoloLens technology as a tool in service operations. Using HoloLens, service technicians can visualise and identify problems with elevators ahead of a job, and have remote, hands-free access to technical and expert information when on site. This has reduced the average length of Thyssenkrupp’s service calls by up to four times. Also, out in the field, GE Renewable Energy have a video on YouTube showing a worker completing wiring insertions for a wind turbine. The video compares the worker using paper instructions versus as AR headset and the technician sees an immediate 34.5% productivity improvement.

Back in manufacturing plants, the equipment, machinery and components, all being used to manufacture products can also get a helping hand from AR. Important maintenance procedures can be made much easier and more accurate, meaning the status of equipment can also be assessed in far shorter timeframes – saving a significant cost.

The monitoring of incoming component parts and outgoing products has traditionally been done by means of drawings or simple checklists, which require time and effort to compile. But with the new AR applications, pre-set CAD models can be accurately overlaid onto a real time video image. When placed over a physical component, this enables a direct comparison of the component with the plan or CAD data and any discrepancies can be recognised instantly. In addition to the pure geometry of the part or assembly, the inspector can also have all other necessary information on the device, such as ISO standards, core data, metadata, etc, so no other medium is needed for the inspection process. This all makes it possible to carry out incoming goods inspections more quickly and easily than ever before.

AR & VR in manufacturing

It’s clear that both Augmented and Virtual Reality technologies are vastly increasing productivity and efficiencies for manufacturing companies. The practical applications are there, and the benefits can be enormous. From reducing training costs and increasing knowledge retention, to getting products to market quicker or making assembly lines and maintenance tasks vastly more efficient; there are huge opportunities available for manufacturers to take advantage and they’re only going to get even more pronounced as the technologies mature.

Courtesy: XR Immersive Enterprise 2020 Conference

Image Gallery

  • 3D assets in VR can deliver extremely accurate representations of real-life products before a piece of metal is cut, a screw is tightened, or a bolt is fixed

  • Emerging AR applications give new life to delivering real-time instructions to workers on the front line, making assembly more accurate

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