At a time when growing skill gaps and global travel restrictions are putting increasing pressure on the industrial sector, AR technology offers a timely, technology based solution to many of the key operational and safety challenges faced. As adoption continues to grow and price points come down, it will soon be hard to ignore as a way for manufacturers to safely share expert knowledge around the world in a cost efficient and environmentally conscious way.
The term Augmented Reality (AR) was first coined around the turn of the millennium by computer scientist, Ronald Azuma, who recognised the huge potential that such technology had in a wide range of business areas and applications. It’s taken a further twenty years for hardware and software to reach a point where that potential can start becoming a reality, but it’s growing commercial adoption couldn’t be more timely. With the COVID-19 pandemic imposing unprecedented restrictions on the movement of people, AR could hold the key to many operational and safety challenges currently being encountered by industrial manufacturers around the world.
What is Augmented Reality?
Augmented Reality (AR) combines elements from the real world with digital representations. Unlike virtual reality, it does not fully immerse the user in a digitalised world, but rather integrates digital information in the perception of the user, enriching the real-world representation with virtual elements and providing context relevant data.
Doing so combines the advantages of both concepts (digital and real-world) allowing for hands-free operation by removing the need for an additional device for entry or display purposes. Azuma himself defined AR as ‘the possibility of integrating virtual objects in the real world and interacting with them in real-time’.
Commercial demand for AR is accelerating
IDC recently predicted that worldwide spending on AR and Virtual Reality (VR) is forecast to accelerate out of the pandemic, growing from just over $12.0 billion in 2020 to $72.8 billion in 2024. Furthermore, commercial applications make up by far the largest share of this growth, with industrial maintenance ($4.1 billion) predicted to be the largest area of investment, alongside training ( also $4.1 billion).
What practical applications does it have for industrial manufacturers?
One of the applications with enormous potential in the manufacturing industry is the maintenance and repair of industrial machinery over large distances. This application takes advantage of the increasing availability of networked product development and manufacturing data created by the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT). Machine data is, after all, provided not only for operation purposes, but also for more transparent, speedier and higher quality maintenance and repair. Increased data transmission speeds - especially through mobile networks such as 4G/5G - and shorter latency times allow for support repair and maintenance work from almost anywhere, even from different countries.
In the current situation, this kind of application is even more valuable than ever. With the manufacturing industry suffering from a growing skills shortage, many organisations have a relatively small pool of skilled experts that they rely on to lead repair operations all over the world. However, ongoing restrictions mean they are currently unable to physically travel, which leaves virtual consultation the only option available. Adoption of AR technology can significantly enhance the quality and capability of long distance repair work, enabling experts to remotely connect with less skilled technicians and safely walk them through complex tasks step by step.
Furthermore, for repair operations in hazardous areas, it reduces the number of employees that need to physically enter the environment, greatly minimising the health and safety risks involved. Rather than sending in teams of employees, a single worker with an AR enabled, intrinsically safe device can perform the required tasks with remote support from the necessary experts.
Such an approach also offers a number of other side benefits. Not only does it enable better knowledge sharing between skilled and lesser skilled employees, reducing skill gaps, it also helps industrial manufacturers cut their carbon footprints (and expenses) by eliminating unnecessary employee travel.
What equipment is needed?
Scalable software platforms, such as the Augmented Reality Service Platform by Inosoft, the Reflekt Remote application by Re'flekt GmbH or Device Insight by the Munich-based IoT pioneer of the same name, provide a variety of hardware solutions, which access existing data and can present their function in a customised manner.
A typical AR-assisted repair process could look like this - a worker at the machine wears a head mounted display to contact an expert remotely via the network. Through the camera integrated in the devices display, the expert receives images or video of the situation on-site. Using a notebook or tablet PC, the expert can then add visual notes and thus inform the technician which lever on the machine needs to actuated or which cable needs to be run to solve the pending issue, all while the technician works hands free.
At a time when the combination of growing skill gaps and global travel restrictions is putting increasing pressure on the industrial sector, AR technology offers a timely, technology based solution to many of the key operational and safety challenges faced. As adoption continues to grow and price points come down, it will soon be hard to ignore as a way for manufacturers to safely share expert knowledge around the world in a cost efficient and environmentally conscious way.
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