In a contributed article for Internet of Business, co-authors JP Provencher of PTC and Michael Chang of Factora dig down into how augmented reality could make vital factory work faster, safer and more accurate.
Seven short years ago, the process of setting centerlines for manufacturing plant operators – defining a series of checks to verify whether equipment was running on the right settings – could be a rather clumsy business, even at Fortune 500 companies. It typically involved manual loggers, each the shape and size of a brick and each equipped with 50 or so rubbery buttons.
Today, at Factora, we now regularly see operators conduct their centerline rounds with smartphones and tablets. With access to these devices, augmented reality (AR) suddenly becomes a realistic option for operators to immediately visualize the task at hand and get it performed faster and more accurately.
How big a change is that? To get an idea of its scope, let’s start with a few facts. First, experts say our vision accounts for two-thirds of the brain’s electrical activity when our eyes are open. Second, forty percent of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to the retina. And last, more of our neurons are dedicated to vision than the other four senses combined.
In other words, we humans are visually driven.
Now, you could argue that we’ve had visual information for a while. In the case above, operators could hunt down and reference a binder or workstation, in order to review what centerlines they were supposed to track. And this reference material would often contain photos of the controls and settings involved. Follow the diagram closely and – easy peasy – it could be just like assembling flat-packed Swedish furniture.
Centerlining with AR and the IoT
But today, with AR, we can enhance the efficiency of the whole process by allowing operators to instantaneously see exactly what and where they’re supposed to be making their checks. And if, connected via IoT, they can also see the real-time values they need to record, all via a mobile device.
So how does this look in practice?
Imagine an operator simply pointing their tablet at a piece of manufacturing plant floor equipment. Instantly, a 3D image of the three knobs he or she needs to check pops up on the screen, say two in front and one at the back. Perhaps a text box then appears above each knob, providing them with a place to simply enter the setting? Or perhaps by touching a virtualized knob and rotating left or right – magic! – they can enter the setting.
In a recent blog article, Neil Gupta, founder of Boston Augmented Reality, a non-profit AR accelerator, writes: “AR will be the interface for humans to take part in the digital conversation that machines are having on manufacturing floors.”
At Factora, we believe that the IoT and AR are natural partners, particularly in light of human capabilities: the IOT captures what is going on in the physical world, and represents it in the digital world; AR brings that insight back into the physical world.
Manufacturers are now leveraging the power of this partnership to visualize things that were previously inaccessible in the real-world environment. By placing digital overlays of instructions, sensor data and so on onto physical reality, AR can help operators do things more quickly and accurately. In other words, it’s about getting tasks right first time.
As an example, think of a typical electronics company with 50-plus SKUs [stock keeping units]: after pulling a product from the production line, the QA [quality assurance] technician can use AR to virtualize the product, viewing step-by-step instructions on how to unpack it and what to check. AR for a laptop, for example, might include displaying to them a rotating virtual laptop that indicates where each screw should be inserted.
Benefits and challenges
Unquestionably, AR promises major benefits. But several challenges still block the way: a shortage of skilled resources; complexity of incorporating IoT data and AR content; inefficient re-use of existing 3D assets for authoring experience; and the difficulty in finding the right app for the right task.
So at this embryonic stage in AR’s development and adoption by manufacturing, partnerships are key. A global steel company, for example, is currently deploying ThingWorx Studio from PTC in order to integrate its different visualization and analytical tools into a single IoT platform. This makes it faster and easier for the company to extend and deploy new capabilities, maximizing the limited real estate in its control rooms that currently have multiple displays for all the different systems.
Companies like this one understand deploying AR is not a one-time event, but rather a journey – and they have a vision of how AR will make it safer for their operators to do their work.
They’re now expecting personnel to be able to see into the performance and status of vessels and rolling machines without physically having to touch them, to be able to simplify control room visualization with a single AR display, and to walk around the plant with a tablet while maintaining assets using 3D instructions in an AR tool.
To them, these benefits are a natural extension of maximizing their investments to drive increased safety and profitability.
With this technology and innovation, immersive experiences can be built in just minutes – no programming skills required – and can take advantage of existing 3D assets built with CAD tools. The operational efficiency of a smart factory is propelled to the next level.
So, how are you going to bring AR to your factory and take your own company’s operational efficiencies several big steps beyond where they stand today?
About the authors: JP Provencher is vice president of manufacturing strategy and solutions at PTC, the technology company behind ThingWorx Studio, while Michael Chang is a senior manufacturing systems consultant at Factora, a consultancy firm that helps manufacturing organizations acquire and leverage the information they need to run more efficiently.