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The technological advancements in Virtual Reality have given rise to path-breaking industry solutions

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Manufacturing IT Virtualisation: A keystone in Industry 4.0

Jun 19, 2018

The role of Virtual Reality (VR) technology in creating a smart, connected factory is undeniable in today’s era of digitalisation and Industry 4.0. With innovations picking up pace, more industries are leaning towards identifying ways to use VR tools. The technological advancements in Virtual Reality have given rise to pathbreaking industry solutions, including virtual manufacturing, virtual prototyping, virtual designing and staying connected with customers through this technology. This viewpoint section explores the benefits and the challenges being faced by manufacturers in adopting it.

“VR opens up a whole new way of visualising the Big Data” — CSS Bharathy, Founder & COO, Fusion VR

AR and VR, being one of the main pillars of Industry 4.0 and the whole manufacturing industry across the globe, has seen very quick adoption. Skilled workforce is the base for every industry to grow and these extended reality technologies play a key role in training and evaluation of manpower. Industries already effectively using these technologies include oil & gas, chemical and allied industries, apparel, furniture and fixtures industries, automobile and aerospace.

The current trend is integrating IoT for visualising real-time data of equipment and factories, which will leverage the production efficiency through remote monitoring. VR opens up a whole new way of visualising the Big Data and thus, enables more informed decision-making. The used cases are endless and becoming more affordable. The best alternative for VR training is Markerless AR, which is buzzing in the industry since Apple and Google started serious research on them. Although there is no immersion in AR, the objective can be achieved with relatively cheap hardware in comparison to VR.

Most of the facilities that started in the past 10 years have digital assets, such as, 3D-CAD designs, simulation data, archived sensor data and a similar kind of Big Data, readily available for developing machine learning, Digital Twins or for IoT integration. For these kinds of equipped factories, before spending huge investments on Industry 4.0 implementation, virtualisation becomes an integral part. Factories built long back may not have these digital assets and hence, the adoption of any of these technologies is going to be a big challenge.

“VR plays a major role across product life cycles” — Dr Dattatraya Parle, Core Engineering & Emerging Technology Expert, Simulation Centre—Pune

Aerospace and automotive OEMs are always front runners to adopt the trending technologies. Virtual Reality (VR) is one such trending technology that these OEMs are trying to use to beat the competition. In product manufacturing, VR plays a major role across the product life cycles starting from concept design to manufacturing. But currently, VR technology is disrupting computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing (CAM) markets in a big way. It is enabling manufacturers to test scenerios and designs before the products are made by improving productivity and reducing the cost of manufacturing. In future, VR will also allow manufacturers to involve customers in product design and engineering.

We may not be able to estimate the exact users of VR market within the Indian manufacturing industry but VR is definitely more popular than expected. Currently, the early adopters are only OEMs and not the supply chain down the line. Once OEMs start pushing suppliers to use these technologies to reap benefits, the Indian manufacturing industry will be much bigger than today, as it is service oriented. There are several challenges in adopting VR softwares and hardwares in the manufacturing sector as it is rapidly changing. Therefore, the industry should be agile to adopt the changes. There are challenges with respect to communication, computing, storage and energy requirement technologies used in VR.

Roadmap to 3D factory using VR goes via Industry 4.0. Any factory should first implement Industry 4.0, then 3D factory, using VR technology, which is just one of the levers. With or without Industry 4.0, in any case, the manufacturing industry can follow a four step process to use VR. These include exploration phase for VR technology landscape, strategising phase to define goals and objectives of using VR, solution phase to design, develop and implement VR technology and scale up successful solutions through training and competency building.

“Integrate VR and AR technologies for transformation” — Anshul Gupta, Director – Sales Operations, ESI Software India

Virtual Reality technologies, within immersive and interactive decision platforms today, possess capabilities to virtually replicate as-is situations of shop-floor scaling customer sites from conventional to Digital Manufacturing. This digital evolution addresses potential use-cases of manufacturing engineers through worker-based ergonomic studies, kinematic evaluations, tool validations, etc. ESI’s software inclines towards Industry 4.0 human-centric process validation for added and sophisticated capabilities, such as, finger-tracking, body-tracking and mixed-tool tracking, further allowing manufacturing engineers to track them physically within the virtual world for critical assessments. The in-built physics solver today enables customers to perform assembly feasibilities or manufacturability, upstream. As more OEMs gear up to focus on digitalisation, Virtual Reality becomes the requirement and though gaining traction as a hyped technology within Indian Manufacturing industry, it initially faces certain challenges, such as, investment, realisation of ROI and localisation of VR hardware.

Immersive VR solution, today, is mainly categorised as Powerwall and the Head Mounted Display (HMD). The Powerwall configuration, though advantageous as inter-departmental visual decision platform, due to higher hardware requirements and the need to accommodate better infrastructure, foresees rising capital investments to OEMs, adding challenges. On the other hand, with the recent globalisation, HMD configuration has today grabbed peak interest, in mainly enabling full-immersion and better interaction of manufacturing use-cases, remaining as cost-effective solution in comparison. This has allowed easy-access of VR to customers today.

The upstream digital validation content using VR technology could further be re-used and cascaded downstream to integrate Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies leading to further transformation as digital factory. ESI’s IC.IDO Virtual Reality Solution, from the latest 12.0 version shall focus and support this transformation and alignment to Industry 4.0 helping customers to digitally compare Physical and Virtual assembly, at downstream, to strengthen quick and efficient integration, optimising time and cost.

“Look at Augmented Reality as a lean manufacturing tool” — S Sundarram, Managing Director— South Asia, Lincoln Electric

The major trends in VR are in the area of product design and training. Training, particularly in fields that are dirty, difficult or dangerous, will have immense potential, such as, welding. Without heat, exposure of the eyes, or inhalation of fumes, welding skills are acquired in a quiet, safe environment. Given this, the trainee will be motivated to learn quicker and work longer. The time to learn is cut radically short and the cost saving is immense.

My belief, however, is that even more benefits will be seen using Augmented Reality. A paradigm shift is needed so that we look at Augmented Reality as a Lean manufacturing tool. I say this because Augmented Reality eliminates the waste from making and trying to prevent mistakes. AR provides operators in manufacturing, particularly in non-repetitive work, information and images that save time, increase productivity and eliminate mistakes.

Augmented Reality can also enable the operator to ‘see’ things that the human eye cannot. For example, a weld cannot be seen as it harms the human eye. But a welder can wear an Augmented Reality helmet instead of a welding helmet and a camera photographing the live weld can overlay the image on the weld area getting the welder to ‘see’ the weld in real-time and adjust his torch accordingly to get a perfect weld.

Adopting VR technology in training is easier as that is the very purpose which it has been made for. The training, using a virtual welder, is easier, cheaper, safer and faster than doing it live. Augmented Reality in manufacturing may take a little time for the operator to learn, but once learnt, he will not be able to manage without it. In design, a considerable degree of training would be required.

The main challenge is investment. The industry is not up for making capital investments unless they see a quick guaranteed return. Overcoming this mindset and getting people to take a leap of faith and invest in the future will be the challenge. Creating a digital twin of a factory is something that is being done, but the benefits that can be derived are yet to be seen.

“There needs to be a strong desire for adopting digital manufacturing practices” —Ajay Holey, Technical Specialist – Manufacturing Services, John Deere India

The digitalisation concept is widely accepted by the manufacturing industry due to advancement and accessibility of the VR technology. The shift from lab-based solution to wearable has significantly increased the usage in manufacturing, where technology is not only used for design reviews but multi-functional-multi-location collaboration, maintenance and assembly instruction delivery, factory layout design and ergonomic assessments as well. Devices like HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and HoloLens are taking place in VR labs in manufacturing

Availability of 3D models is the primary requirement to use VR technology. The Indian industry was hardly focused on 3D modelling. Product Engineering adopted 3D modelling but manufacturing was still slow in adopting 3D for layout and tool fixture design. When the industry realised the need for 3D and started adopting it for manufacturing purpose, the affordability of VR technology was very low. Spending crores of rupees on developing VR lab and maintaining the software licenses at lacs of rupees was hardly accepted by the Indian industry. Thirdly, the availability of skillsets was a challenge, too, as there were limited exposures available.

The value of 3D modelling is realised by the industry. With 3 models available for anything and everything, it is feasible to implement VR technology. With VR devices more affordable and accessible, the Indian industry is at least showing interest in it. Various conferences and journals have improved the awareness about ease of use and applications in manufacturing. The major challenge is user experience offered by VR technologies and compatibility of data formats.

A factory has to realise the importance of 3D modelling for its layout, fixtures, tools, manipulators and other factory objects. There needs to be a strong desire for adopting digital manufacturing practices and focus on building capabilities in VR. It will help identify the opportunities to utilise this technology and business case for implementing it. Once the strategy is executed well, VR can become a routine for each application area without a second thought.

“Facilitating digital transformation with VR technology” — Hemanth Satyanarayana, Founder & CEO, Imaginate Technologies

Both VR and AR, otherwise now referred to as XR, have a significant role to play in manufacturing. VR particularly enables faster design process of, both, the product and the associated assembly line necessary for manufacturing. Although they have been designed in 3D for a long while now using softwares, such as, Catia, Revit, Creo, etc., they still don’t address the need for natural immersive experience. VR makes it immersive. A new upcoming trend in VR in this space is collaboration and not just standalone design, which is all about getting designers from geographically separated teams together into one virtual world and pave the path for real-time collaborative design. The other trend in this space is working with digital twins in VR that enable a remote user to interact with the equipment physically present on the shop floor.

In training, most of the learning aids have been available in the form of powerpoint presentations or videos. Trainings are also performed often on field but are prone to safety hazards. With VR, the entire factory can be recreated in its near true shape in a virtual world within which all training activities can be performed along with accurate understanding of every trainee’s performance. Other trends include shop floor reviews using live 360 video feeds in VR, in collaboration with all relevant personnel.

Content and hardware are the bottlenecks for the manufacturing industry in India. VR hardware is quite expensive in India because of import duties and thus, scaling up is difficult. Content for old factories and products are not available in 3D, thus, creating a training curriculum in VR for such facilities is expensive. For the new upcoming products and plants, current processes involve 3D already and hence, the content problem doesn’t apply. Familiarisation with VR is the last bottleneck, which will be solved with respect to time. More people need to experience VR to understand its true potential and facilitate digital transformation in their plan with VR.

“Witnessing a shift in paradigm” — Vikas Khanvelkar, Managing Director, DesignTech Systems

The VR and AR technologies that were traditionally known to have major applications in the gaming industry, are now witnessing a shift in paradigm. This technology is also being explored in the manufacturing sector. Though it is still evolving, the possibilities and applications are immense. VR and AR technology is similar to CGI being used extensively in the movies. It helps generate or produce a dynamic virtual 3D world with the user being an integral part in it. It gives the user an advanced level of dynamic and highly interactive virtual experience, wherein the user is able to carry out necessary operations, such as, visualise and evaluate the conceived manufacturing set-up, perform tasks to check efficiency, transform and make changes to the manufacturing set-up, plant operations or layout for evaluating manufacturing feasibilities and much more.

This virtual dynamic manufacturing world provides the users the best environment to evaluate various manufacturing workflows and examine new possibilities and try out ‘what-if’ scenarios to come up with the most optimised and best functioning manufacturing plan. It enhances the digital experience of the plant set-up and modifications, while increasing the overall throughput efficiency and manufacturing safety.

The Indian Manufacturing industry is yet to proactively implement the Digital Manufacturing solutions that allow the companies to digitally evaluate their manufacturing set-ups, including work-flows, layout, ergonomics analysis, robotics analysis and more. We are far from adopting the VR and AR technologies. People and companies are aware about this new technology having great applications in manufacturing, but we are in no way near to taking serious cognizance of it and acting on adopting them in our existing processes. Industries in India have always been the late adopters of advanced technologies. Only when the technologies have been proven in the world market, when the companies definitely see a lucrative ROI, when we break the psychological barriers of migrating from traditional processes to new approaches, and to a certain extent, when we are compelled to use new technologies to stay competitive and relevant, do we start giving due considerations to adopting them.

To migrate to VR-based manufacturing evaluations, the companies are expected to have the basic infrastructure ready in terms of 3D CAD plant layouts, which many companies in India, especially the SMEs, would not have. They still resort to 2D and paper-based plant layouts. In terms of manpower, the technical experts in digital manufacturing technologies, with focused training can easily upgrade their skills to learn VR applications and technologies. However, these technical experts are rare to find and difficult to retain due to higher packages that these positions demand. Some large companies and OEMs like Maruti, VW and Mahindra have started adopting these technologies in limited ways.

There exists several software to help companies generate a 3D Plant or factory layout to evaluate and optimise workflows. VR goes one step further. This is a visually much more enhanced and dynamic experience where the user is part of the visually working schematic. To convert a 3D Factory layout into VR requires additional tech support, advanced visualisation tools and specialised hardware having high-end graphics and computing power, which gives users that magnanimous experience. Besides the clear benefits and perceived applications of this technology, it also has tremendous visual appeal and feel-good factor, which constitutes for its high costs requiring considerable investments.

Image Gallery

  • CSS Bharathy, Founder & COO, Fusion VR

  • Dr Dattatraya Parle, Core Engineering & Emerging Technology Expert, Simulation Centre—Pune

  • Anshul Gupta, Director – Sales Operations, ESI Software India

  • S Sundarram, Managing Director— South Asia, Lincoln Electric

  • Ajay Holey, Technical Specialist – Manufacturing Services, John Deere India

  • Hemanth Satyanarayana, Founder & CEO, Imaginate Technologies

  • Vikas Khanvelkar, Managing Director, DesignTech Systems

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