Augmented reality in the manufacturing space

Published:  19 December, 2018

Nick Boughton, digital lead at leading systems integrator Boulting Technology, examines how AR can be used across the manufacturing industry.

The first developments of augmented reality (AR) technology came in 1968, when computer scientist Ivan Sutherland, created an AR head-mounted display that superimposed virtual information onto the physical environment. While AR is becoming increasingly popular in popular culture, how does the world of manufacturing keep up with the opportunities available to them?

From international consumer brands like Ikea, to cutting edge game developers and social media channels, AR has been transforming our physical environment into a captive and interactive virtual world for a number of years, but there are still very few examples of AR being used to support industrial work processes and facilities. This is changing though.

In 2017, the Government’s Made Smarter Review identified augmented and virtual reality as key disruptors that will aid in boosting productivity in the sector. With the latest technology swiftly becoming the norm in our day-to-day lives, the possibilities of AR being integrated into standard practice across industrial organisations is beginning to become reality.

There are some clear areas where AR would be beneficial to the industry. For example, with some processes involving hundreds of components being constructed into a precise and often constrained sequence, AR provides the opportunity for assembly instructions to be superimposed onto the worker’s field of vision for immediate access. This also means that workers wouldn’t need to rely on potentially out-of-date instructions as documents can be automatically updated when new versions become available.

Maintenance matters

In addition to its use on the assembly line, one of AR’s biggest potential areas is its integration within maintenance programmes.

From very early on, AR can be used to train maintenance engineers on the environments that they will encounter. This is of particular benefit for projects in hazardous environments such as food and beverage manufacturing, pharmaceuticals or even remote environments such as oil rigs.

Where AR holds its maximum potential is through real-time data and information access. By using AR, maintenance teams can have direct access to equipment data or system errors through their digital view in order to repair and maximise efficiencies on any equipment they are working on. Being able to access and see a machine’s real-time status and data could unlock a wealth of valuable information, allowing for a truly predictive maintenance plan to be implemented.

Off-site access

AR also opens up the potential for off-site staff to access the same view as the maintenance team on site. This has the potential to support multi-location, or global teams that have equipment or service experts that may not be easily accessible to help support maintenance processes, particularly in emergency or unplanned circumstances.

By enabling a ‘see-what-I-see’ view through the AR technology, engineers can look through the same view as the on-site technician who is performing the maintenance tasks. Linking up workers through voice calls would further ease this process, as the experts can communicate the required actions and be able to see and guide the on-site worker complete them in real-time view.

This has considerable cost saving implications as not all technicians would need to be trained in every piece of equipment or process before they can begin work. It opens the opportunity of true on-the-job learning as well as increasing the opportunity of skills and knowledge sharing across multiple sites, or even nations.

So, while AR and other mixed reality concepts are only just beginning to see their value in industrial and manufacturing sectors, the possibilities of what can be achieved by integrating them into everyday practice is about to make exciting leaps forward.

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