It’s not about video games anymore. From creating new customer experiences to improving training, learning and development, AR and VR are complementary technologies, and both have a role in Industry 4.0. Both can contribute significantly in a myriad of areas for industrial manufacturing, ranging from setting up new plants, commissioning new lines to training personnel and modelling the existing shop floor to implementing predictive maintenance.
The economic impact of VR and AR highlights how these immersive technologies can drive significant process improvements, with the potential to boost global GDP by $275 billion by 2030. Though AR adoption is gathering momentum, industrial implementations of AR have existed for a while. Some estimates put AR ahead of VR in importance and adoption from an Industry 4.0 perspective and perhaps there is some sense to that. AR is best known through the extremely popular and viral game Pokémon Go. MarketsandMarkets predicted that the AR market will reach $72.7 billion by 2024 at an annual growth rate of 46.6%. Manufacturers will increasingly embrace AR because of its many use cases across the field.
Use cases in manufacturing
Product development: Product development is a collaborative process prone to risk. AR allows product developers, executives and employees to work together to ensure that any manufacturing process problems or quality issues are detected before the product gets to the consumer.
Product developers can create 3D models of new products and introduce them into the assembly line using AR. This virtual model lets employees check the quality of the new product before its release.
While it’s probably not a great idea to have workers on an assembly line wearing immersive VR headsets, the less immersive XR technologies can bring big advantages to the production process. AR glasses, like Google Glass or MR headsets, like the HoloLens, can overlay instructions and graphics onto real-life components and products, thereby helping technicians and operators get up to speed quicker.
Training: AR has the power to create a semi-immersive experience for factory employee training. Combined with digital twin technology, in which a virtual copy is created of a physical asset, AR expedites the learning curve as less-experienced workers learn how to maintain or repair equipment. AR allows employees to train using a realistic and dynamic simulation. There is no need to disassemble and reassemble the actual equipment to learn how to conduct a repair.
The use of VR headsets in training can also substantially reduce costs and increase the safety of employee training to replicate dangerous or expensive scenarios. All of these can create savings and efficiencies for manufacturers.
Troubleshooting high-end machinery: AR helps manufacturing operations personnel directly show all problems to maintenance teams & engineers and assist them in getting real-time access to diagnose and resolve issues without interfering with production, determining which equipment or hardware needs servicing on a real-time basis. It displays information pertaining to operation time, last service date and potential points of failure each time the maintenance team visits the production floor and allows quicker repairs and faster response.
Real-time employee instruction and education: Leveraging AR enables employees to get real-time information about every complex detail of the production process. One can feed virtual instructions into AR devices and enhance employee experience.
Inventory management: Companies can streamline their inventory database management and provide workers instructions about the exact location of particular items, such as those pertaining to the aisle or shelf of their storage, with the help of AR. This can reduce confusion, increase precision and reduce the turnaround time. In addition, in the logistics sector, products like smart glasses can display picking information for the worker, highlight location, display product details and packing instructions.
Investment companies have recently stated that the global AR and VR market will grow from $3 billion in 2020 to $28 billion by 2025. As the technology expands, the related cost will decline (following Wright’s law )
By 2030, 23 million jobs will be using AR and VR in one way or another for training, meetings and customer service (PwC 2019)
43% of manufacturing companies say that VR will become mainstream in their organisation within the next three years. An additional 38% believe it will be mainstream in the coming three to five years (Capgemini).
AR development statistics for 2020 reveal that AR companies are working on industrial applications (65%) rather than consumer software (Forbes)
The whole premise (and promise!) of Industry 4.0 is that it combines new with existing technologies so that operations become extremely connected, predictive, resilient and efficient. The resultant operational data, which may have been ignored or lost, is now captured through hyper-connected IT applications, enriched by these applications using AI & Big Data analytics and then delivered to users across the value chain.
Delivering the enriched extended experience
Industry 4.0 leverages the Internet of Things-based devices and cloud-based computing using AR and/or VR for an enriched and immersive experience, enabling enterprises to react faster. Armed with high quality information, the resulting actions help to achieve Industry 4.0 benefits associated with speed, accuracy, clarity and in some cases, innovation. The use of AR/VR in the manufacturing space can result in specialists working remotely across the globe, now working together virtually using digital visualisations to create new products collaboratively, quickly and efficiently.
Though there are some constraints to the practice of AR and VR, one of the obvious limitations is it’s not that comfortable to wear an AR or MR headset for long periods of time, which means expecting workers to wear these things for, say, an eight-hour shift on an assembly line isn’t feasible. This will change as the technology improves but, for now, the most appropriate use is likely to be periodically checking instructions during a task, following a set of instructions in real-time or learning a task before undertaking it, as opposed to wearing the headset for several hours at a time. (The use of VR headsets in the design process seems largely limited to short-term use, which is fine.)
Then there’s the financial investment required, which will be a major consideration for most businesses. As with any new investment, one has to weigh up the costs of implementing the emerging technology versus not doing it – by which I mean the future cost savings and efficiencies one might miss out on if they don’t invest.
Innovative technologies like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are not going to become mainstream overnight. But working together can have a powerful impact on the manufacturing business.