The most promising digital technologies of recent times have been virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The concept may have been around for some time but the technology is still very much in its infancy. That being said, many manufacturers have started exploring the benefits augmented reality can offer in a manufacturing environment. We also know it will have a significant impact on the industrial sector within the next few years.

Manufacturing Training With Virtual Reality

Virtual reality headsets have flooded the market in the past 2 years but their applications are still only just beginning to be explored. The primary use for VR in the industry is to help train employees on how to use certain critical systems. The concept is to create an immersive digital version of a factory or a piece of machinery.

Here, an employee can learn to use a complex piece of machinery in an environment that closely resembles real life. If an employee is going to maintain a machine but doesn’t know how to do it, they can test it first on the virtual version. One of the major benefits is that mistakes in the virtual environment cannot endanger the employee, other staff members or damage the equipment. You also greatly minimise downtime of a real asset if they had to train on the real thing.

The other technology is augmented reality. As the name suggests, ‘reality’ is ‘augmented’ by digital overlays which interact with the wearer and the physical environment into which they are projected. It’s also a great manufacturing training tool but can be used for full-scale visualisations of products, machines, or parts without having to physically build anything.

Once such example is Microsoft’s Hololens AR device. It’s the first self-contained holographic computer that enables real-time engagement and interaction with digital content. The current version is expensive though and limited by a narrow field of view. This means it still requires a few technical tweaks and has to be more cost-effective before it can add true value to manufacturers.

Applications for Augmented Reality in Manufacturing

“Augmented reality (AR) is one of the most trending technologies associated with any Industry 4.0 or smart manufacturing initiative.”

It may seem like maintenance or training are the main talking points and for good reason. In no way is it a reflection of complexity or inability, but rather the perfect fit to solve common maintenance and training challenges. As technology improves through extensive research, development and prototyping, it won’t be long before we achieve something remarkable. The possibilities are already raising eyebrows and wetting the appetite for more.

Assembly Lines in Modern Manufacturing

Whether you’re manufacturing vehicles, smartphones or jet engines, they involve complex assembly lines where hundreds of components need to be combined. Every new product requires a new set of assembly instructions. These are usually in PDF format and not always easy to fully comprehend. Another downside is they may also be out of date.

With augmented reality technology, these instructions are made available at all times hands-free and voice-activated. The instructions can be accompanied by technical drawings or even a video made by the previous person on AR glasses.

Machine Maintenance and Installation using Augmented Reality

In addition to helping in the assembly line, augmented reality can also be used to assist in the maintenance of equipment. A good example is how Mitsubishi Electric has developed a maintenance-support technology using augmented reality. It’s based on a 3D model that enables users to see the order of inspection on an AR display from where they can use their voice to enter inspection results. This application of AR is time-saving and ensures more accuracy in the process.

Imagine providing instructions to guide an operator with 3D animated models on how to service a machine? Or better yet, a video on how to disassemble or reassemble a device. This is a truly powerful and innovative solution nearly any industry could benefit from.

Superimposing graphic instructions on top of physical components can be incredibly useful. It can identify the 3D space of the component; which screws need to be unscrewed, which buttons to press or switches to turn clockwise or counterclockwise. This can save loads of time and eliminate, or at least, minimise errors, especially with inexperienced technicians.

Besides using AR in manufacturing, it can be utilised in other areas such as building electrical systems or plant inspections. In fact, elevator manufacturer thyssenkrupp announced last year that its technicians would begin using Microsoft’s HoloLens technology as a tool in service operations. As a result, technicians can visualize and identify problems with elevators ahead of a job. They will have remote, hands-free access to technical and expert information when on site. Take a look at their video below.

Quality Assurance Applications

Metrology and QA offer a number of potential applications for augmented reality. Even manual inspections can be enhanced with AR. The Porsche assembly plant in Germany uses an augmented reality tool in their QA process.

The idea is to take photographs of parts or assemblies on vehicles being inspected from where these images are compared to ones provided by the supplier via an augmented reality overlay. Anything that seems out of spec can be highlighted by the overlay thus enabling Porsche technicians to quickly and effectively identify any potential issues.

AR is a great opportunity to change the way we interact with machines and production lines. The potential for its use in manufacturing is massive, not only for maintenance but in production as well. The training provided by Augmented and Virtual Reality can give real-time feedback and drastically improve the transfer of skills and better knowledge retention. It may not be the perfect solution for everything as it still needs to provide true value. If not, it will just be another fancy app with features no-one really cares about.

What are your thoughts on AR and VR, not just in manufacturing but other sectors as well? Feel free to share your stories or comments in the section below and get in touch if you need assistance with your engineering project. We specialise in a number of industries including automotive, rail, construction, aerospace and defence.

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