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AR and VR may hold the key to highly efficient industrial maintenance

22 August 2019

Modern virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies are more than quirky arcade attractions, they offer a wealth of benefits to food and beverage maintenance engineers. Here, George Walker, managing director of industrial VR specialist Novotek UK and Ireland, explains how VR could redefine industrial maintenance and enhance food plant safety.

Industrial maintenance is a thorn in the side of many plant managers, regardless of sector and business size. It can be a costly, time-consuming process, but it is also one that is required if a plant’s systems are to remain effective, efficient and even operational.
This is especially true for food and beverage plants, where even a momentary period of system downtime can result in lost production. For example, on yogurt production lines, plant managers must ensure that produce is kept at certain temperatures and handled in a certain time period to minimise the risk of spoilage. Downtime, due to faulty or ineffective systems, can result in an entire batch being disposed, often to the tune of thousands of pounds in lost profit.
It’s for this reason that many plants have made maintenance a priority in recent years, increasingly adopting preventative or predictive maintenance practices. In fact, a 2018 survey found that predictive maintenance was in the top three technologies being adopted by UK manufacturers.
Repairing with AR

However, while incorporating predictive maintenance functionality into industrial automation systems is valuable in minimising the frequency of maintenance, there will be times when a maintenance engineer must visit the site to carry out a repair. Depending on the role of the equipment requiring maintenance and the nature of the maintenance itself, this period of planned downtime can still have a negative impact on production.
It’s here that VR and AR technologies are proving to be valuable tools in helping maintenance engineers repair equipment and systems faster and more effectively than ever before. Maintenance staff can use a mixed reality headset, such as Microsoft HoloLens, or even just their mobile phones to see an augmented view of equipment, highlighting the performance data of individual components and the best way of accessing them.
For example, let’s say that a dairy plant’s manufacturing execution system highlights that a rotary evaporator, used to standardise the dry matter of milk in the early production stages, requires maintenance. Because the evaporator consists of several components, a maintenance engineer could use AR to see a virtual representation of the components in the evaporator and identify which need attending to.
This is only possible if the AR application can access the real-time operational data from the evaporator. In this instance, the engineer could use the AR functionality of PTC’s ThingWorx 8 industrial internet of things (IIoT) platform, as provided by Novotek UK and Ireland. Working with experienced industrial software experts like Novotek means food and beverage companies get the right AR application for their plant, to ensure it works effectively.
By using a purpose-built AR application, the engineer can view real time system data from the ThingWorx IIoT platform and see which components are performing inefficiently. In this case, it could be that the evaporator’s compressor requires lubrication. The engineer can then resolve this in the least disruptive way possible, minimising the impact on production.
Ensuring safety

This ability to streamline maintenance also contributes towards a food plant manager’s ability to ensure safety in equipment that could pose a hazard if it is not maintained properly.
A prime example of this would be in industrial milk dryer systems, which are commonly used in the production of dried milk powder. This powder is highly combustible, and it can cause explosions if it is exposed to high temperatures.
Unfortunately, dryer systems tend to accumulate displaced milk powder during operation, which can heat and combust if left in place. This is particularly common in the spray dryer systems often used in milk drying, where powder can gather in the bottom of a system in a volume that can easily reach the minimum combustible concentration (MEC) of milk powder.
This accumulation of powder contributes significantly towards the explosive potential of spray dryer systems, which is recognised in the VDI 2263, part 7, guidelines on dust explosion protection in spray dryers. With the powder serving as fuel, the high temperatures of operation risking ignition and airflow in the system providing a steady flow of oxygen, a potential fire could grow and spread rapidly.
As such, it’s important that the equipment is maintained properly on a regular basis and that connected systems, such as heat transfer and recovery systems, are fully functional. However, this maintenance must be carried out regularly and before problems occur, which leads many plant managers to establish maintenance schedules that support over-maintenance to minimise risk.
With a connected system that facilitates predictive maintenance and AR functionality, plant managers can more accurately determine when to clean and maintain the milk dryer systems. Whether it’s elevated temperatures or the volume of dust in the equipment, smart systems and sensors can monitor key metrics and feed them back to the IIoT platform.
Then, when maintenance is needed, plant managers can schedule field technicians or maintenance engineers to tend to the system. These engineers can then easily use AR to aid in the disassembly and reassembly of these systems, ensuring that the equipment can be cleaned in a fraction of the time.
From this, we can see why VR and AR are far more than quirky technologies for industrial businesses. If used properly alongside an IIoT platform that supports predictive maintenance, they can help plant managers achieve the next level of industrial maintenance efficiency, where the unavoidable downtime associated with maintenance can be minimised to mere moments.
About the author

George Walker is the managing director of Novotek UK and Ireland. Walker was one of the original members of Kerrco Automation, which he was instrumental in developing prior to the company becoming Novotek in late 2017.

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