Augmented reality (AR) is quickly becoming one of the most important technologies of this century. It is expanding from consumer use to become one of the cornerstones of the latest industrial revolution: Industry 4.0.
It is a technology that expands the physical environment by adding layers of digital information to a user's reality in real time. AR can take human cognition and perception to a whole new level by superimposing computer-generated information on the physical reality of a user.
AR can potentially assist in resolving issues such as inadequate information availability to workers, insufficient worker training and poor communication between various industrial units. Additionally, by incorporating real-time virtual information into a worker's environment, AR has the ability to simplify their activities and optimize decision making. AR can also play a big role in enhancing occupational safety in industrial settings, as the majority of worker injuries are caused by insufficient training, insufficient job experience and lack of attentiveness.
Furthermore, AR can also be advantageous in certain areas of the product's life cycle other than design and manufacture. For instance, it enables marketing opportunities by improving the pre-sales consumer experience.
Deploying AR in industry
In general, two methods can be used to augment the real physical world. The first method involves furnishing the environment with appropriate tools and devices, while the second option is to equip the user with AR devices.
In the first method, called spatial AR, projectors and holograms can be used to project information onto 3D objects or screens. The other means, computer-based AR, uses large touch HMIs to depict the environment with the information overlay. Generally, AR solutions trend toward the latter, as it is easier to adapt existing hardware to a new digital twin of the real world versus moving projectors and holograms each time the environment changes.
In most cases, smart glasses are the optimal solution as the workers’ hands remain free to perform various tasks as they view the required information through their glasses. Although there are a wide range of options available in the market when selecting AR smart glasses, some technological advancements are still required in this field to improve the battery life, field of view, resolution and weight of AR smart glasses.
Industrial applications for AR
Here are three specific manufacturing scenarios where AR is having an impact.
AR can prove to be quite useful in carrying out various maintenance processes. There is great potential if mechanical technicians are provided with smart devices containing information, training sequences or user manuals that can assist in repair and maintenance activities. These are helpful reference materials for procedures, obscure data or equations that need to be recalled on the spot. Or, if the machinery under inspection has the right sensing and networking tech, the user's smart glasses will tell them key parameters as soon as the glimpse the machine. And operating controls or menus can be just a hand swipe away.
There is an additional challenge in terms of manpower. Travel restrictions, social distancing, low staffing and remote work are growing trends, meaning it can be harder than ever to get the right expertise to a defective machine. This can be overcome by tapping into the expertise of remote individuals, who are providing an on-site technician with instructions and ideas from thousands of miles away.
Of course, the benefits of AR for maintenance will be best effected in high-skill, global industries like aerospace, oil and gas, utilities and more. Boeing has for several years used the technology to help its technicians diagnose and install wiring in airplane fuselages and plenum space; the result is a 30% reduction in maintenance, repair and operations time.
AR can decrease the assembly time and improve quality anywhere assembly tasks are done manually. AR software can eliminate paper manuals and instructions, and permit workers to visualize info, such as the order and position of parts and joints, and hardware and tools needed to complete the process. The use of 3D software also does not help significantly in this regard as it does not allow direct interaction with the actual physical object. AR-supported assembly systems solve these issues and allow workers to digitally superimpose critical information on the physical parts.
AR can also be a part of a smart instruction system that is capable of improving the performance of employees through assistive learning. With enough data collected, AI software or human engineers can identify efficiencies to optimize workpiece throughput or quality. The system can also identify bottlenecks or new opportunities to improve processes, just due to its continued use.
And as with maintenance, technicians are able to call in expertise for tough tasks as needed. India's Wabtec implements AR so workers can consult engineers, advisors and others when assembling the company's locomotives. The complex array of national regulations and standards created many questions for workers on each job.
The fourth industrial revolution has introduced a new generation of industrial robots: the collaborative robot, or cobot, with the aim of improving productivity and overall efficiency. When combined with these industrial robots, AR can open doors for a high level of collaboration between human workers and robots.
Donning smart glasses or another HMI, a human can stand next to the cobot, understand what the cobot senses, manually maneuver the cobot through the required task and save the process as a program. With no software work, the worker just taught the cobot how to complete a task on the assembly line, inspection process or delivery route.
The accompanying video, courtesy of the University of Hamburg via YouTube, demonstrates this quite well.
Meanwhile, the networked environment monitors the location of the HMI, and once within a certain distance, signals the local manufacturing unit or machinery to idle, adding another layer of safety to the factory floor.
AR has been an exciting notion since its inception and will continue to be so as long as there is room for additional research and development. AR is a unique combination of software, hardware and digital information. While software and hardware can be purchased in the market, the digital information must be developed in-house in the companies and factories. Converting industrial processes into digital content suitable for augmented reality applications is a difficult task that typically requires expert technical staff. However, once integrated into the system, AR aids in a high performing industrial environment with a number of benefits. The main areas that still require significant research in the field of AR are object positioning and recognition, control of industrial systems and voice and eye control. Further development in these areas is expected to take the cutting-edge technology of AR to new heights.