Manufacturers embrace AR for new way of working

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Manufacturers hit by the Covid-19 pandemic are able to turn to immersive technologies such as AR to get their businesses back on track

Quick read

➨  AR or VR technology is gaining traction in manufacturing, with 56% of organisations that responded to one survey integrating some over the last 12 months
➨ Covid-19 has sped up adoption, particularly of AR, and the likes of Garvey Corporation and PTC are working to meet demand
➨ Remote assistance and training are key use cases in manufacturing

The story

Manufacturers have long been urged to traverse the road to increased efficiency and productivity through the use of digital and immersive technologies.

As Ericsson put it in a preview for a study published in July, “no factory can risk being left behind in the transition to smart manufacturing. If a factory fails to innovate its product and production process, it risks incurring a cost of inaction, which is the cost of the lost opportunity.”

The study from ABI Research highlighted manufacturers’ use of AR for troubleshooting, support and training when comparing financial and operational results from a standard factory to one that has been upgraded to support dedicated cellular Industry 4.0 equipment.

At Ericsson’s 5G manufacturing sites, the telecommunications company has found that the ability to remote-in an expert resulted in 50% less downtime, 50% fewer service trips, and an 85% reduction in training time.

Based on ABI Research’s Industry 4.0 ROI analysis, a tier-one German automotive factory using AR could generate $37 million in operational cost savings, which amounts to an operational cost savings ratio of 0.5%.

Immersive technology developer Grid Raster released the results of its own survey of manufacturers in automotive, aerospace and defence, and technology in April, finding that they were already well on their way to embracing AR and VR.

Approximately 215 responses were collected during the week of 30 March 2020, from C-level and technology executives of mid-level and enterprise-level organisations. According to the survey results, 56% of those polled said they have implemented some form of AR or VR technology into their organisation over the last 12 months, and another 35% said they are considering doing so.

More than a quarter (27%) said they have fully deployed an AR or VR solution and are looking to scale further.

Dijam Panigrahi, co-founder and COO of Grid Raster, said in April: “The recent Covid-19 pandemic may push this number further, especially as companies of all sizes look to implement more virtual design into their workflows to minimise human interaction on the production floor.”

“It is encouraging that these companies are realising the benefits that AR/VR offers, but scalability offers great challenges in many cases.”

Of course, as Panigrahi predicted, the Covid-19 pandemic forced many manufacturers to close factories and down tools. Immersive technologies, particularly AR, offered those yet to embrace them a route back to normality—and developers have risen to the challenge.

In June, at the height of lockdown, Garvey Corporation invested in new technologies to deliver virtual factory acceptance tests (FATs), installations, and service calls. Thomas Garvey, the manufacturing specialist’s president, believes these types of virtual offerings will become the norm in manufacturing, even when factories are operating under regular conditions.

For the FATs, Garvey built a mobile station consisting of a tall rolling computer stand that contains a CPU, a monitor, and a high-end Logitech webcam with HD video, 10x optical zoom, and full remote capabilities. On-site technicians conduct the test wearing headphones and sharing their cameras to provide multiple views and detailed close-ups. The customers join using video conferencing software, which allows them to communicate with the on-site team. Unlike for a traditional FAT, the entire meeting is recorded so that all parties can have a complete account of what happened.

Thomas Garvey said: “Our first virtual FAT went so well that our customer suggested that they will use this format for all Garvey FATs going forward. That’s understandable because of the tremendous savings in time and travel expenses.”

The virtual installations and service calls use AR via a headset that enables Garvey’s service technicians to see from the customer’s perspective. The headset has a screen that gives the feeling of a 7 inch tablet floating in front of the user, as well as a full audio and video system that allows the on-site technician to go hands-free while being guided by an in-house engineer.

“Because of the success of the virtual service, we’re offering it as an option to all of our customers,” Thomas Garvey continued. “The ultimate goal is to get our customers up and running as quickly as possible, and using augmented reality enables us to solve many issues very rapidly and eliminate travel time and related costs.”

Vuforia Expert Capture was used by members of the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium
Vuforia Expert Capture was used by members of the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium

In the UK, the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) participated in the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium of businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and healthcare industries, which joined forces to produce medical ventilators as the Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on the country’s health services.

Off the back of that participation, the AMRC struck an agreement with PTC, which supplied its AR software to the VentilatorChallengeUK partners, for Vuforia Expert Capture. The order will see the AMRC become a lighthouse demonstrator for a growing range of digital technologies and AR solutions for manufacturing.

Vuforia Expert Capture is an out-of-the-box digital solution from the US-based global technology company that allows tasks to be recorded using a wearable device and the content turned into step-by-step instructions for workers to follow to get a job done quickly and accurately the first time.

Professor Rab Scott, head of digital at the University of Sheffield AMRC, said Vuforia Expert Capture will be used to deliver upskilling and reskilling solutions for its aerospace partners, with the potential for much wider application into other sectors.

“Our involvement in VentilatorChallengeUK gave us first-hand experience of the power of AR in helping to quickly set up new manufacturing lines safely by rapidly transferring production knowledge to different facilities.”

“The VentilatorChallengeUK activity has really increased the exposure of AR as a viable tool set for the manufacturing enterprise and we expect to see a dramatic uptake in the technology on the shopfloor in the near future.”

As part of the order, research engineers across the AMRC will also be able to maximise the capability of Vuforia Chalk, a remote assistance product that leverages AR to help employees collaborate in operational, maintenance and repair situations.

David Grammer, UK country manager at PTC, said: “The high-profile nature of the VentilatorChallengeUK has really thrust augmented reality into the spotlight and proved that it is a technology that manufacturers can easily adopt and successfully implement now and not in five, ten or even twenty years’ time.”

“Using Vuforia Expert Capture and Vuforia Chalk allowed us to parachute a virtual Smiths Medical manufacturing expert into new production lines, giving engineers who had never worked on ventilators before access to all the guidance and advice they required to complete the build.”

“AR reduced the time taken to create the new supply chain by a number of weeks and also protected all the workers involved in the project by ensuring staff were not moving from site to site, reducing the risk of Covid-19 spreading.”

He added: “We now want to increase the adoption of augmented reality and remote assistance in other manufacturing environments and the AMRC will provide a perfect gateway to engaging with research projects, new supply chains and in the development of new products.”

In this much talked about ‘new normal’, AR and other immersive technologies could prove crucial to manufacturers staying efficient while keeping their workers safe.

They have shown impressive innovation and flexibility during this time of crisis. It will be exciting to see what they come up with next.

Main image: Garvey’s offering for virtual factory acceptance tests, installations and service calls