The rapid deployment of supporting technology and the fall in prices of wearable devices (already happened to handheld ones) are contributing to the spread of Augmented, Mixed and Virtual Reality-based solutions, now expected to be a “can’t-live-without tech” for every company in the field of Industrial Manufacturing.
Augmented, Mixed, Virtual Reality. What are they?
AR can be seen as an extension of the user’s environment, which gets enriched in real time with superimposed digital models and information, such as texts, graphics and multimedia. The aim of this technology is to “augment” or, in other words, to improve the physical world with contextual, significant and relevant information.
By contrast, VR technology radically changes the users’ perception of the world as it immerses them into an artificial, unreal and computer-generated environment. Elements are then separated from the actual world and replicated into a virtual one, in which users rely on their five senses to interact with objects and places.
MR can be positioned in the middle, as it integrates digital models into the physical world, enabling users to interact with them while remaining aware of the real environment around them.
The main differences lie in the devices used and, therefore, in the functions provided and the sector where they can be employed.
Augmented, Mixed and Virtual Reality for Industry 4.0
Field technicians often face unknown assets, thus asking the company to send an expert on site. It goes without saying that such procedure is costly and time-consuming; in short, inefficient. Likewise, maintenance and repairing interventions nowadays represent the most critical processes for companies.
Very common cases where such technologies can support companies operating in the Industrial Manufacturing sector are remote execution of maintenance activities, virtual collaboration, training and machinery presentation.
In fact, Augmented Reality can bridge the skills gap and reduce errors made by operators, thus ensuring a rapid and efficient sharing of know-how as well as increasing the percentage of first-time fixes and giving more accurate diagnoses.
By leveraging the integration with Artificial Intelligence, users are equipped with all the necessary tools to “capture” their experiences, which are then processed by powerful algorithms and shared within the organization. Technological asset tagging, photo and video indexing, real-time translation, creation of operational workflows, are just a few examples of the available features that help create a shared and reusable knowledge base, through fully automatic processes. Therefore, upon each technical intervention, the application automatically “suggests” all possible solutions resulted from learning the procedures of previous activities.
The technology breakthrough reflects into increasingly sophisticated machines requiring maintenance interventions performed by resources with a higher degree of specialization. Expert maintenance technicians are however extremely rare to find and are usually forced to move across the world to respond to growing requests for intervention, thus extending machine downtime and increasing expenses for companies. In this regard, remote training on new procedures or complex activities is becoming more and more important. Implementing these functionalities proves to be game-changing for situations which are difficult or too expensive to recreate in reality.
The available information may also be integrated with connected IoT devices (displaying the data needed for real-time checks on the proper functioning of an asset) or combined with the BIM (Building Information Modeling) methodology, so as to evaluate the impact of possible plant installations prior to their actual creation. Moreover, the assets’ digital twins can be manipulated in real time and enriched with further information, by “anchoring” notes shared by those remote users with the skills needed to support the execution of field activities. Such functions enhance the expertise and allow to complete maintenance and assistance interventions rapidly and efficiently.
Finally, it is worth noting how the current global emergency situation and the resulting restrictions have boomed those features allowing remote collaboration, machinery presentations and related remote functionalities. These two particular uses of technology allow to minimize travels of personnel, both in case of operational and training activities, thus taking digital information wherever the business requires it, in total safety, and with even higher results than those achievable with traditional methods.
Augmented, Mixed and Virtual Reality provide several opportunities for development to production companies, way beyond the initial expectations of the general public, which were limited to the entertainment and video game industry. Indeed, they have marked a turning point in many different business processes, from sales and marketing activities to Field Service and remote support, from training and learning to the manufacturing sector.
AR, MR and VR have proven to bring value to the business of industrial companies adopting them, both in terms of reduced time for work execution, thanks to faster maintenance procedures, improved staff productivity and efficiency, as well as increased workforce safety thanks to hands-free activity, remote training and collaboration.
- Operators can perform their tasks more efficiently, thanks to hands-free vocal instructions and real-time remote support
- Specialized skills and expertise are transferred to the entire organization for shared and proactive use
- Training of inexperienced staff is faster and easier, thanks to collaborative learning
- Productivity, safety and customer service reach the highest standards
Companies in the Industrial Manufacturing sector are currently leading the way in the transition toward the “new normal”, due to the intrinsic nature of the activities their operators are always exposed to. AR, MR and VR are able to “extend” the resources’ capabilities, supporting them through guided procedures while carrying out maintenance activities on production lines, arming them with pertinent information on plant assets and, last but not least, connecting them with other colleagues to receive or give real-time assistance. The continuous transfer of corporate knowledge is therefore now a reality.