Manufacturers should embrace augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) has the potential to make the manufacturing floor faster, safer, and more accurate and the Internet of Things (IoT) can help companies realize AR's benefits.

By JP Provencher, PTC; Michael Chang, Factora December 9, 2017

Seven 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 clumsy business. It usually involved manual loggers, each the shape and size of a brick, and each equipped with 50 or so rubbery buttons.

Today, operators conduct their centerline rounds with smartphones and tablets. With these devices, augmented reality (AR) becomes a realistic option for operators to visualize the task at hand for faster performance and increased accuracy. How big a change is that? To get an idea of its scope, remember that humans are visually driven. Experts say our vision accounts for two-thirds of the brain’s electrical activity when our eyes are open and 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to the retina. More of our neurons are dedicated to vision than the other four senses combined. 

Companies can use AR to enhance efficiency 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. 

Digital conversations

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 insight back into the physical world. Manufacturers are 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 and getting it right the first time.

Consider this situation with an electronics company with 50-plus stock keeping units (SKUs): after pulling a product from the production line, the quality assurance (QA) 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, which indicates where each screw should be inserted.

Benefits and challenges

While AR can provide major benefits, there are several challenges including: 

  • A shortage of skilled resources
  • Complexity of incorporating IoT data and AR content
  • Inefficient re-use of existing 3-D assets for authoring experience
  • Difficulty in finding the right app for the right task.

At this embryonic stage in AR’s development and adoption by manufacturing, partnerships are key. A global steel company, for example, is deploying an IoT platform to integrate its different visualization and analytical tools. 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.

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 3-D instructions in an AR tool.

Companies see 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 3-D assets built with computer-aided design (CAD) tools. The operational efficiency of a smart factory is propelled to the next level.

JP Provencher is vice president of manufacturing strategy and solutions at PTC; Michael Chang is a senior manufacturing systems consultant at Factora. This article originally appeared here. Internet of Business is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, CFE Media,

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