Virtual reality and augmented reality have achieved a few victories in recent years in the consumer marketplace. Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and Microsoft HoloLens are all jockeying for market share as technology improves and prices drop.
On the manufacturing front, manufacturers such as Ford and Airbus have used virtual and augmented reality for a number of years. But in general, companies are just beginning to kick the virtual tires as VR and AR become more viable in production environments. The technologies show early promise in reducing error rates, improving productivity, and enabling remote collaboration. But a steep climb to broader adoption remains.
Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality
Often categorized together, augmented reality and virtual reality represent two different technologies. With AR, the user sees a layer or screen of data that overlays the real world. With VR, the operator is completely immersed in a computer-generated reality.
Manufacturing end-users are more likely to adopt augmented reality over virtual reality because the former “simply serves more of the needs of enterprise applications better,” says Eric Abbruzzese, a senior analyst with ABI Research.
Unlike VR, AR does not require a screen to be directly in front of a user’s eyes. Not only is maintaining user vision critical for safety and usability in manufacturing environments, it is often an “integral part of the experience,” Abbruzzese says.
Such is the case with remote assistance or collaboration, which Abbruzzese says represents the primary use case for AR. The technology allows users in different locations to see the same thing at the same time. For example, an expert could show a maintenance technician in another facility how to fix something by using 3-D models and making annotations over an image or video of the affected asset.
Acting as a “visual wizard” of sorts, AR can be particularly useful in guiding machine operators or maintenance personnel on actions for which they may not be fully trained or fully understand, such as machine vision or other advanced technologies.
Mobile augmented reality applications on smart phones and tablets provide manufacturers basic functionality like object tracking. However, mobile AR will be transitioning over the next 5-10 years into smart glasses as general understanding of their capabilities increases and costs come down, according to Abbruzzese.
Training Through Immersion
Despite the limitations in virtual reality, the technology is emerging as a maintenance training tool like its augmented reality cousin. ASML, which manufactures chip-making equipment for the semiconductor industry, has to build new lithography machines every time a customer introduces a new chip or component. Not only can a machine cost upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, but ASML must do so under time constraints to get products to market as quickly as possible.
That doesn’t leave much time after the build to train technicians to service the machine. As an alternative, ASML deployed the VizMove VR system from WorldViz, which has been providing VR to industrial clients since 2002. VizMove immerses technicians in the machine’s design so they can interact with the equipment even before it is manufactured.
Pratt & Whitney faced a similar issue when building two specific and costly engines for a fighter aircraft. The company didn’t want engineers to train directly on the engine “because if you break something on the real engine, it causes time delays and huge costs,” says WorldViz cofounder Matthias Pusch.
Augmenting Aircraft Production
Like VR/AR-guided maintenance and training, the technologies are influencing the actions of personnel on the manufacturing floor. For the past five years, Airbus Group has been testing its augmented reality program, known as MiRA (Mixed Reality Application). The aircraft manufacturer developed MiRA to shorten production time and standardize quality across its manufacturing facilities.
MiRA integrates a digital mock-up of an aircraft into the production environment and allows the worker to access that 3D model from any perspective. With MiRA, inspection time for the roughly 70,000 brackets in the A380 fuselage has declined from three weeks to three days.
Airbus’ facility in Stade, Germany, produces fuselage shells for the A350 aircraft and is the company’s first site to use MiRA for installation activities in series production. MiRA facilitates positioning 745 bonded brackets in eight variations.
Before MiRA, workers had to check the design document for every bracket to determine where to attach it. They then would manually move through the installation steps. Now, a projector casts a 3D image on the fuselage. Based on data from the digital mock-up, the image shows the exact position for the bracket. The projection merges installation and demonstration of the correct geometry — previously two work steps — into one.
Additional information such as part numbers is displayed on the workers’ tablets, enabling employees to select the correct bracket. Airbus reports that since launching MiRA at the Stade facility in May 2016, processing time has dropped by 30% and the cost of non-quality caused by incorrectly installed brackets is approaching zero.
A350 XWB component maker Spirit AeroSystems recently tapped Airbus subsidiary Testia to supply MiRA — known externally as the Smart Augmented Reality Tool (SART) — in two factories. For the last two years, Spirit has tested and evaluated the technology for use in operational conditions for inspection and quality control of brackets.
Reducing Robotics Complexities
Teaching a robot to do a simple pick-and-place job typically requires only gross movements. But virtual and augmented reality have the advantage when the user needs to instruct a robot how to perform a series of complex or fine manipulation tasks.
The Computational Interaction and Robotics Laboratory (CIRL) at Johns Hopkins University’s computer science department has created the Immersive Virtual Robotics Environment (IVRE). IVRE puts the operator in the same space the robot occupies in order to instruct and interact with it.
Using VR and AR, “we can give the user the same level of perceptual feedback as the robot would have,” says Gregory Hager, director of the CIRL. “They can now directly act out, or simulate, the way the robot would perform a task and understand how to construct that task around the robot’s level of manipulation and perception.”
Kelleher Guerin, who developed the core technology behind IVRE as a Ph.D. student at JHU, recently launched Ready Robotics. The startup aims to shorten the four- to eight-week timeframe typically required to program and integrate robots into the production process to a few hours.
Ready Robotics plans to deploy prototype systems to several manufacturers for use in small-batch manufacturing.
Safe, Productive Manufacturing
As manufacturers like Airbus and Pratt & Whitney demonstrate productivity gains, VR/AR providers are creating products to capitalize on emerging manufacturing and industrial customers. Built for industrial use across a number of applications, DAQRI Smart Helmet (DSH) is an integrated hardware and software platform leveraging AR technology. DSH works by overlaying digital instructions, mapping and thermal heat indicators on top of what the wearer is seeing through the visor in real life, real time.
The Smart Helmet's software suite allows end-users to create their own digital content without needing coding skills. The product also features hardware optimizations for key applications like computer vision and can be used in place of traditional personal protective equipment once DAQRI completes the certification process.
Users can complete a variety of tasks designed to improve productivity, efficiency and safety. Digital augmented work instructions for machine/infrastructure assembly, maintenance and repair saves time currently spent consulting paper or desktop-based work instructions.
In addition to a real-time remote collaboration function, the helmet acts as a tool to improve situational awareness. According to DAQRI’s Matt Kammerait, this capability allows for better safety controls, “especially around heavy equipment or hazardous environments where physical placement matters.”
Barriers to Entry
Even with the emergence of purpose-built AR/VR solutions for manufacturing environments, a number of challenges confront the industry before adoption becomes main stream.
Integration with existing IT infrastructure might pose problems and manufacturing settings. ABI’s Abbruzzese shares a hypothetical example in which a large aircraft manufacturer finds success in a test program using 20 augmented reality devices, but hits snags in trying to expand the technology to thousands of workers who are already accustomed to an existing IT infrastructure. What’s more, integrating the AR technology on such a large scale must meet the company’s cyber security requirements.
Some VR/AR providers also recognize their responsibility to bridge the gap between honesty and hype. “Understanding the limitations of virtual reality is equally important as understanding its capabilities,” WorldViz’s Pusch says.
Being immersed in a virtual environment, for instance, doesn’t allow users to see their own body. “That takes away a lot of lateral capability, like taking a quick note with the pen and a piece of paper,” Pusch says. Users also must become accustomed to working with the device on their head and adapting to the VR system’s hand controller.
The quality of the VR experience also lacks in many industrial settings. “Unless you put a lot of effort in, simulations are still very basic,” Pusch says. “There won’t be as many colors, shadows and reflections as there would be in a computer game.”
If workers feel uneasy about using the system, “they might not get the correct visual input or they reach for the wrong thing,” Pusch says. “Industrial simulations must provide precise, accurate results.”
ROI: The Ultimate Decider
As with any new technology, manufacturers must justify the investment of augmented and virtual reality. Kammerait says that companies investigating the potential impact of AR should count on 50% or more of the investment being the deployment of existing resources, mostly in the form of people’s time.
Results from early adopters look promising, says ABI’s Abbruzzese. Some companies deploying AR glasses in the pilot phase have reported up to an 80% reduction in error rate and a 20-30% return on investment.
If data continues to show a worthwhile ROI, Abbruzzeese says “it will influence a lot of companies already interested in augmented reality to take that next step.”