AR-enabled industrial wearables: the next growth market?

AR-enabled industrial wearables: the next growth market?

The latest investments in augmented reality (AR) platform company Upskill reveal that the concept of using AR to train and assist factory workers is starting to be taken seriously. Jessica Twentyman reports.

Networking giant Cisco and consultancy firm Accenture have both invested in Upskill, a provider of AR technologies for industrial workers.

The investment from the two companies forms part of a $17.2 million round of new capital raised by Upskill. Existing investors include: Boeing HorizonX, the aerospace giant’s investment vehicle; GE Ventures, part of General Electric; and venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates.

This latest funding round brings total investments in Vienna, Virginia-based Upskill to $45.8 million.

The reason for investors’ interest is implicit in the vendor’s name: AR has enormous potential to upskill and train workers via smart glasses in a variety of industrial settings, including factories, warehouses, construction sites, and more.

Upskill is the developer of a software platform called Skylight AR. Via a pair of smart glasses, industrial workers can be fed a steady stream of task-related information, without them needing to carry around paper-based manuals and reference materials.

For example, using AR, an engineer could be guided through the process of replacing a valve on a piece of factory-floor machinery, and a warehouse worker could be advised on how to best pack the products that make up an online order.

Read more: Upskill’s augmented reality tech makes impact at GE

Read more: Reuters’ AR & VR visions revealed

Smart combo

The combination of Upskill’s Skylight AR and smart glasses has led to significant improvements in worker onboarding and productivity, according to Amit Chaturvedy, Cisco Investment’s head of IoT venture investments. It has also reduced errors and accidents at a number of industrial companies.

In a blog post about the funding round, Chaturvedy wrote: “[The system] presents as a simple, intuitive software interface that’s visible in a worker’s line of sight.

“Hands-on workers can receive instructions, live remote support, complete tasks faster, maker fewer mistakes, and update records in real-time while remaining hands-free.”

The system is already in use at Boeing and in GE’s Aviation, Healthcare and Renewable Energy divisions, as well as at other companies including automotive company Toyota, airline Delta, third-party logistics (3PL) company Ryder and metals and mining company Rio Tinto.

Similar solutions have been trialled in the automotive sector in recent years by companies such as Volkswagen.

Volkswagen worker using Google technology in 2015.

According to Boeing CIO Ted Colbert, the company is using Skylight in several of its aircraft manufacturing lines. “We now want to introduce AR into the services part of our business so we may service our own, and third-party products, for our end-customers,” he said.

The use of connected and augmented technologies is big business in aerospace. For example, Rolls Royce has trialled remote robotic jet engine maintenance, allowing engineers on the ground in Derby to fix planes on the tarmac in Dubai.

In the network construction and services division at Australian telco Telstra, a trial of Upskill is underway “as a way to connect our field technicians to network equipment in ways we couldn’t before”, according to general manager of strategy and productivity, Sanjay Rai. The aim is to boost productivity and drive down costs.

Read more: Why manufacturers should welcome the age of augmented reality

Bright future

Unsurprisingly, Upskill isn’t the only company trying to get a head start in the growing market for AR platforms.

Last year, market analyst firm ABI Research assessed 19 vendors in this area and declared the Vuforia platform (acquired by industrial software company PTC in 2015) as the market leader, followed by Re’Flekt and Ubimax.

But while these three vendors were the overall ‘winners’ in ABI’s assessment, different vendors have different strengths that make them stand out for customers, analysts noted.

Vuforia, Wikitude, and ARToolKit were deemed to be the top suppliers when it comes to delivering a strong software development kit (SDK), with strong machine vision capabilities and cloud device support.

HP Aurasma, Augment, and Blippar scored highest in the application-focused group, thanks to strong customer footprints, fair pricing, and good developer accessibility.

Re’Flekt, Ubimax, and Upskill Skylight, meanwhile, were considered the top three in the usage-focused group, due to strong device support, IoT synergy, and smart glasses support.

Internet of Business says

Now that VR and AR technologies have made their way out of the gaming arena and into industry, their real-world practical applications should now be clear. Being able to layer digital information on top of the real world has enormous benefits in industries such as manufacturing, engineering, and maintenance, especially in training or the carrying out of sensitive or dangerous tasks.

And when combined with other technologies, such as tele-robotics, digital twins, haptic interfaces, and more, AR and VR can enable work to be carried out remotely in dangerous or hazard-filled environments – or, as is the case with the Rolls Royce example mentioned in Twentyman’s report, save large amounts of money and time by carrying out critical tasks remotely from the other side of the planet.

• In related research, ABI Research estimates that smart glasses shipments will grow to 32.7 million in 2022, up from 225,000 in 2017. Meanwhile, analysts at Gartner reckon that by 2020, AR solutions will be adopted across multiple business functions in almost one-third of large enterprises as part of their digital transformation efforts.

Read more: In headsets battle, augmented reality for business to dominate, says IDC

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