How AR and VR are transforming training in manufacturing

Augmented reality (VR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies are improving training programs in plant facilities and bridging the skills gap with more efficient training for the incoming workforce – training new workers at 30 to 40% more efficiently and reducing assembly time.

By Shelby Hegy, PTC August 9, 2018

Early adopters of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in manufacturing have demonstrated the technology delivers value by bridging the skills gap and transforming the way controls engineers are trained and evaluated and how retiring workers are offboarded (the process of retaining and sharing domain knowledge and intellectual property (IP)). AR and VR also show value in improving workforce productivity and safety. For example, a large aerospace and defense company, headquartered in the U.K., leveraged AR to create a more flexible workforce. With AR, the company created guided work instructions in hours at a 10th of the cost, trained new workers 30 to 40% more efficiently, and reduced assembly time by half.

In another case, a global manufacturer of business technology products, headquartered in the U.S., leveraged AR to connect field engineers with experts instead of providing service manuals and telephone support. First-time fix rates increased by 67% and the engineers’ efficiency increased by 20%. The average time to resolve problems dropped by more than 2 hours.

Advancements in AR for creating and documenting work procedures for training have shown a 37% reduction in time spent training and a 75% reduction in time required to document work instructions. 

Addressing the labor shortage in manufacturing

Manufacturers are facing a shortage of skilled workers and have been for years—even before the record lows in unemployment. Retiring workers, economic expansion, and a widening skills gap are all contributing factors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average tenure of a new worker in manufacturing is 5.3 years, meaning even if a manufacturer attracts new talent, the likelihood they’ll be recruiting again in the future is high. The hardest positions to fill are typically the ones that have the biggest impact on performance. Technical positions such as controls engineers, skilled operators, technicians, and machinists, are critical to expanding operations, implementing digital transformation initiatives, and improving productivity. These are also the positions that require the most training and investment.

Internal training programs are the key to attracting and developing the talent manufacturers need. However, legacy methods such as training manuals, job shadowing, and evaluations and certification processes are outdated, less effective, and time consuming. These methods also don’t address the need to cater to different learning styles: visual, aural, verbal, etc. 

Defining AR and VR

AR transforms how information is consumed by overlaying digital content and analytics onto the real world. For example, imagine being in a manufacturing setting and being able to, with the help of 2-D and 3-D eyewear, cell phone, or tablet, view operational data, drawings, documentation, and blueprints overlaid onto the machinery and plant floor. It also can provide step-by-step procedural guidance, operator set-up, and change over instructions, workflows, processes, and more.

On the other hand, VR creates fully immersive experiences. Instead of overlaying data and analytics onto the real world, VR creates a simulated environment. Imagine being able to virtually visit a remote plant or a plant still under construction, such as an offshore oil and gas platform, without having to send trainees on-site. 

AR training use cases

Typically, workforce development in manufacturing consists of traditional methods, which is generally a mix of printed manuals, computer-based trainings, role-playing, and shadowing. These methods are time- and cost-intensive and deliver mixed results despite the significant expenses. Printed manuals can be difficult to interpret; videos aren’t interactive and can’t be tailored to individual needs; and role-playing can be difficult to schedule and can impede production and reduce productivity. These types of training materials are also time- intensive to create and maintain, and, if there isn’t offline equipment available, all the knowledge gained from training still needs to be put into real-life context.

AR addresses the needs of multiple learning styles and has many benefits. AR:

  • Makes training visual, auditory, and kinesthetic
  • Provides step-by-step visual and-oral instructions in real-time
  • Helps workers navigate the factory and warehouse more efficiently
  • Identifies the proper tools and parts required for a task
  • Provides step-by-step instructions
  • Alerts and corrects missteps along the way providing real-time feedback
  • Overlays key performance metrics and operational data onto equipment to illustrate how the factory is responding to changes.

For example, if a controls or maintenance engineer is alerted that a motor isn’t working, AR can lead an engineer or technician to the spare part in the warehouse, help direct the person to the location of the motor in the factory, provide step-by-step directions on how to safely perform lockout-tagout (LOTO) procedures, and display guided instructions to remove the old motor and install the new one. Upon completion, AR can then show how to properly start-up the machine.

AR versus traditional training methods

After completing coursework, trainees are evaluated to ensure understanding and comprehension of key subjects, including LOTO procedures, process hazard methodologies, OSHA guidelines, and more. In some cases, trainees may be subjected to hands-on assessments; in others, it may only be testing for certifications.

Certifications and hands-on assessments have drawbacks. With paper and digital exams, trainers fail to assess if trainees grasp the real-world concepts required to be successful. With hands-on assessments, trainees are tested on valuable concepts, but data, such as human error and measures of overall performance, is lost. This data is instrumental to improving future training programs.

AR provides a means of combining the best of both evaluation methods by subjecting trainees to hands-on examinations while capturing those essential pieces of data required to enhance training. AR has the power to recognize when the wrong part is leveraged, when assembly steps are completed out of order, when it takes too long to complete a task, or even when a misstep causes a safety risk.

Using VR to prepare and train for emergency scenarios

Regardless of the level of training, in manufacturing there are situations all controls engineers need to be prepared for. Traditional training methods can’t or don’t adequately address these scenarios.

In process industries, where safety is the utmost priority, operators and controls engineers need to be prepared for situations that they hopefully never encounter in their career, such as a runaway reaction, chemical leak, or explosion. Or situations that may happen only once a year such as shutdown and start-up. In discrete and hybrid manufacturing, operators need to be prepared for product changeovers, equipment upgrades, and emergency situations where quick action is required to mitigate and prevent the risk of damage to property and personnel.

These are situations where VR can add immense value. With immersive digital twins, controls engineers can role-play and practice emergency response scenarios. Within the context of the manufacturing environment, they cannot only train for how to respond, but can also learn how different responses impact operations. Digital twins and VR also offer the opportunity to train operators when a physical environment isn’t available, whether the facility is under construction, in a remote location, or is unsafe.

Bridging the skills gap with AR

According to Deloitte, over the next 10 years, more than 2.7 million baby boomers are retiring from manufacturing, taking their embedded knowledge with them. Effective offboarding is critical to developing the next generation of controls engineers. However, developing traditional training materials is time-intensive and materials quickly become out-of-date.

With AR, capturing expert knowledge becomes significantly more efficient. Rather than performing a process and spending hours documenting it later, skilled engineers can create AR experiences passively. AR leverages advanced sensors and computer vision to capture audio and visual cues that document factory location and work processes. Controls engineers can perform a task while wearing a headset and talk through the steps as if they were training someone. At the same time, AR is documenting and translating the information into training materials for future use that can be published either in AR experiences or in more traditional formats such as videos, images, and text documents, (see Figure 1).

In addition to seamless offboarding, AR also can bridge the skills gap by creating a connection between remote experts and manufacturing facilities. Remote experts can wear an AR device that displays the same information and surroundings of someone wearing an AR device in the factory, and they can have a conversation in the context of the factory. Remote experts also can use their hands to draw and make markings in the digital world to help communicate ideas and instructions to workers in the physical world. This type of interactive and visual communication never existed before AR. It can help workers complete unfamiliar or challenging tasks or troubleshoot a problem with expert guidance. It also provides increased flexibility for workers who are eligible for retirement but who may want to continue working, on a part-time or remote basis.

The need to attract, train, and retain the next generation of controls engineers will be challenging; however, AR and VR appeals to the interests of technology-centric millennials and have demonstrated they can improve training and onboarding. With AR and VR, controls engineers can be better equipped for the day-to-day and emergency situations they may never encounter in their careers. Manufacturers should embrace today’s technology to bridge the skills gap and ensure a productive, safe transition to the next workforce generation.

Shelby Hegy, senior marketing manager of manufacturing at PTC. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


KEYWORDS: augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR)

  • How AR and VR enhance training in manufacturing
  • The benefits of using AR and VR in manufacturing facilities
  • Using AR and VR to bridge the skills gap between industry experts and the incoming workforce.

Consider this

How would AR and VR technologies improve the training process for incoming employees and bridge the skills gap? 

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Author Bio: Shelby Hegy, senior marketing manager of manufacturing, at PTC. Shelby is a writer with a passion for and an emphasis on technology for discrete and process manufacturing. She holds a B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Minnesota. 

Multimedia Captions & URLs:

Video 1: PTC video: Augmented reality overlays the digital world on the physical world to transform the way information is consumed.

Video 2: PTC video: Experts can help those with less experience problem solve, and teams can quickly collaborate and make changes.