Augmented Reality Technology Finds Its Place in Manufacturing and Maintenance
It didn’t take long for the much-heralded Google Glass to become the butt of jokes from talk show hosts. But Google’s failed consumer product is enjoying new life in the manufacturing world, boosting the efficiency and accuracy of workers that are responsible for heavy equipment.
Experts in the field of augmented reality—of which Google’s new Glass Enterprise Edition is a prime example—say that smart glasses make it easier for workers to repair and maintain industrial equipment. That includes microturbines and other onsite power generation equipment.
Experts in the field say it is only a matter of time until workers equipped with interactive smart glasses take for granted the overlay instructions and images generated by these devices—overlays that can dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes them to repair and service equipment.
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“There are two kinds of augmented reality,” says chief executive officer Annie Eaton of Futurus, an Atlanta-based company that specializes in developing augmented and virtual reality technology. “There’s the flashy, phone-based entertainment type of augmented reality. Then there is the more practical, heads-up version that we are seeing being used in heavy industry. We are happy to see that Google relaunched Glass to focus on this latter version. We think that is the direction this field will go in.”
Credit: iStock/hiro-hideki; composite: Deja Hsu
What AR Does
Augmented reality—commonly referred to as AR—has already made a measurable impact on workers that build, maintain, and repair heavy industrial equipment. In most cases, workers will wear AR glasses that project computer-generated graphics, text, images, or video onto a piece of equipment.
In the most common use of this technology, a worker wearing the glasses would be able to project detailed repair or maintenance instructions over a piece of machinery, such as a microturbine. This saves time, as the worker won’t have to look back and forth from an instruction manual to the microturbine.
Workers can also use AR glasses to pinpoint specific parts of a machine. Instead of hunting for these parts on their own, their AR smart glasses can immediately point workers to the components in need of repair.
These may seem like small matters, but a recent study by GE found that such uses of AR can make a big difference in how quickly workers can complete their tasks.
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A GE case study, released in May of this year, looked at workers who were assembling wind turbines at a GRE Renewable Energy factory in Pensacola, FL. These workers wore smart glasses from Upskill, a company backed by GE Ventures that produces enterprise software for wearable technologies.
According to GE, before the workers began wearing their AR glasses, they often had to stop mid-job to check manuals or reach out to an expert to make sure they were installing parts correctly. Once they began wearing smart glasses equipped with Upskill’s Skylight programming, these same workers instead relied on digital directions projected clearly in their line of sight.
The glasses also provide workers with on-demand training videos. Workers can use voice commands to call experts for quick in-field help. They can even stream what they are seeing directly to an expert, who can then guide them through the repairs needed to get a wind turbine back online.
GE found that workers experienced a productivity boost of 34% the very first time they began using AR-equipped glasses.
“We’ve seen empirically across GE that we can make a heck of a dent in the skills gap by giving workers information on-demand to do their jobs more powerfully,” writes Brian Ballard, chief executive officer and founder of Upskill.
GE says that the Skylight operating system is already being used in nearly every company business unit. As an example of how this tech is used, GE says that in a warehouse in Florence, SC, that manufactures parts for MRI machines, workers with smart glasses might receive an order directly from their devices.
Skylight will then guide these workers to the correct storage area and bin to find each item in the order. GE reported an improvement of 46% in order completion upon the first-time use of Skylight for this purpose.
“Imagine how much productivity is usually lost just trying to figure out where these products are located,” says Ballard in the GE report. “When you can digitize that information so that it’s available and dynamic in real time, the opportunities for efficiency are quite meaningful.”
A Future Full of Potential
What excites Eaton most about AR is the potential it holds. This technology is already making a difference today, as the GE study shows. But Eaton says that in the future, workers will be able to access more information through AR, making them even more productive in manufacturing settings.
Already, workers at some of the larger companies across the globe are using AR-equipped devices—everything from glasses and tablets to hardhats—to display operating instructions, manuals, and pictures directly across the equipment on which they are working. Eaton, though, considers this more of a short-term, immediate benefit of AR.
In the long-term, AR technology will become more interactive, she says. Say a worker is repairing a damaged microturbine. With AR technology, that worker will not only be able to project instructions and images onto the equipment, but the worker will also be able to rely on interactive content such as arrows that point directly to a malfunctioning item on the microturbine. Other graphics could appear to show that worker exactly what steps to take, and in what order, to most efficiently repair the equipment.
“You’ll know instantly what you have to work on at that exact moment,” says Eaton. “You won’t have to search for what you need to do next.”
Chief technology officer Mark Benson of Minneapolis’ Exosite, a provider of Internet of Things technology, agrees that AR technology has tremendous promise in manufacturing.
AR won’t only be important for repairing microturbines and other onsite power systems. Workers will also be able to use AR to better schedule preventive maintenance so that onsite power equipment doesn’t need to be repaired as often.
The key is to connect AR technology with the Internet of Things, a movement in which a growing number of everyday objects use the Internet to communicate with building owners and maintenance staffers. In a commercial or industrial building, for instance, the microturbines could send a message to monitoring equipment indicating that they are in need of routine service.
Currently, maintenance staffers follow a recommended schedule when it comes to preventive maintenance, says Benson. This is fine if a building’s maintenance crews actually follow the schedule. But even if they do—and sometimes they don’t—what if a piece of equipment would actually benefit from a tune-up before its scheduled time?
With Internet of Things technology, maintenance workers would receive an alert if something with a machine was off. They can then use AR technology to be able to see inside a chiller, for example, to determine what might be going wrong with the machine. This way, they can service the equipment quickly before the chiller breaks down or goes offline.
Not only could this type of AR technology make the servicing of onsite power equipment more efficient, it could make it safer, says Benson.
“Anytime someone can see what is going on inside a machine without opening it up and crawling inside—that saves not only time, but could be safer,” says Benson. “To be able to know what the issue is when you are standing outside the machine opens up so many possibilities.”
Livia Wiley, senior product marketing manager with Schneider Electric software, sums it up as: “It’s not a question of if AR is the future, but when. This is the way we are moving.”
Credit: iStock/Hramovnick; composite: Deja Hsu
Today, companies store mountains of data about their businesses and the equipment that powers them. This data is already powerful, of course; but for Wiley, that power only increases when companies and manufacturers tie the data they’ve collected into AR technology.
As Wiley explains, companies can take the data they’ve stored, send it to AR-powered helmets or glasses, and give their employees greater power than ever to monitor, maintain, and repair microturbines, chillers, and other power equipment.
“You can funnel that data to the person who needs it at the exact moment that person needs it,” says Wiley.
AR can even help with the typically mundane, time-consuming tasks. Employees, for instance, can access AR programs that show them how to react in case a fire hits their plant. Employees can use AR to quickly access standard operating procedures and company guidelines—information they normally would have only been fed through a thick manual or orientation guide.
It’s more likely that employees will actually digest this information if they can access it through AR tech versus if they had to crack open a thick employee manual during their off-hours.
“We are at the cusp of AR technology really exploding,” says Wiley.
Count Bill Bodin, chief technology officer with mobile enterprise company Kony, as another proponent of AR in industrial settings. As Bodin sees it, this type of tech can help eliminate costly mistakes that could cause onsite power equipment to fail.
“When someone is working on a piece of equipment, that person is not the first person to ever do so,” says Bodin.
This means that other workers in the past have worked on the microturbine. Say that a new employee is tasked with repairing. Maybe the screws are especially difficult to remove from a specific sub-assembly of this piece of equipment; maybe a special tool is required to remove those troublesome screws.
Workers armed with AR tech can access overlays that explain this problem immediately. They can then repair the piece of equipment more efficiently, without wasting time wondering why a certain tool can’t seem to remove those stubborn screws. “The next person who comes along and tries to use an inappropriate tool is guided to the right tool for the occasion,” says Bodin. “That happens before they try to use something that might not be optimal. They can learn from the mistakes that others have made before them. The mistakes that happened in the past, don’t have to happen again in the future.”
Capturing and Preserving Experience
Then, there’s the process of capturing worker experience. As Wiley says, tens of thousands of baby boomers are retiring from the workforce every day. And this turnover is expected to continue through at least 2030. At the same time, younger workers will be taking the jobs they leave behind.
These younger workers are certainly tech-savvy, having grown up with laptops, tablets, and smartphones, says Wiley. What they lack, though, is real-world experience—exactly what the retiring baby boomers have in quantity.
How to pass along the experience from these retiring ‘boomers? Wiley says that companies can create AR training modules to pass along the knowledge and experience they could lose when their older workers retire. Doing this is far less time-consuming than having senior employees spend days or weeks training new workers.
“You don’t want to have to spend a long time doing mentorships,” says Wiley. “If you instead rely on a combination of AR and virtual reality programs in the training room and in the plant, you can pass on this experience and knowledge in a much more efficient way.”
New workers can slip on a pair of AR-powered glasses, tour the inside
of their plant, and gain instant access to the parts, schematics, blueprints, and maintenance history of the equipment inside it. They can access AR videos and training modules that will demonstrate, step by step, the process of repairing and servicing the plant’s key machinery.
“Those are all efficiency gains,” says Wiley. “The AR and virtual reality tech allows you to accelerate the learning process. Millennials grew up with Xboxes. They are able, from a training perspective, to navigate through the plant and look at the individual unit operations. They can overlay data. Because they can do this, companies can really decrease the amount of time they have to spend on training.”
A Young Technology
AR technology is still in its relative infancy, of course. But larger manufacturers—companies such as DHL and GE—are already testing the tech in their warehouses and distribution centers.
Eaton’s hope is that as these bigger companies with more resources test the technology, other companies will see that by using AR properly, they can boost the productivity of their workers—saving a significant amount of money while doing so.
The possibility of saving money, after all, is what will ultimately inspire companies to invest in AR technology.
“With these larger companies already using it, proving that it is a way to increase efficiency, generating positive data, it will encourage other companies to follow,” says Eaton. “I see that as a positive. The larger companies with the innovative budgets to finance experimental projects will lead the way here. They can prove the effectiveness of the technology before other medium-sized companies take on the risk. The larger companies and their experiences can justify the cost.”
The next steps in AR’s evolution, the steps that could turn it into an even more transformative technology, won’t happen unless manufacturers and building owners embrace this technology.
So, is that happening now? It is, AR experts explain, but at a gradual pace.
Benson says that before building owners and managers invest in AR technology, they’ll first want to make sure that it not only works, but that it can save them money.
“It’s about outcomes,” says Benson. “It’s not just about the story and how this technology could potentially reduce equipment downtime. The owners need to see some sort of proof and case study. They don’t want to make this huge upfront investment in something that seems bleeding edge but that might not produce results. As soon as the people making these AR systems can show that it can produce real outcomes, then owners will embrace it fully.”
Benson says that industrial and manufacturing users are already embracing AR technology, albeit at a still-cautious pace. Many of these users are working with a combination of AR and remote sensing technology, tech that can provide information about the health and activity of equipment. Users can then feed this information into the overlays and projected instructions that workers can use to maintain or repair equipment.
There’s even work being done by Daqri, an AR company based in Los Angeles, that has created the Smart Helmet. When wearing the helmet, industrial workers simply have to look at an object such as a water pipe to get instant information about its flow rates, temperature, and pressure levels.
The data fueling this AR-powered helmet, of course, comes from sensors—demonstrating, once again, just how well sensors and remote monitoring can work with AR technology.
Benson says that the failure of Google Glass for consumers wasn’t unexpected. The glasses looked strange. People worried that Glass would make it easy for people to invade their privacy.
This isn’t an issue in industrial uses.
“With industrial, the social situation is much different,” says Benson. “Someone wearing a hardhat fitted with sensors isn’t worried about how it looks. In industrial uses, the outcomes are what matter. If you can show that wearing a helmet with sensors can make workers more efficient, that this product can save money, that’s what matters. So it doesn’t surprise me that AR technology is finding a second life in terms of industrial use. Most people think of AR in terms of gaming or entertainment. But the long-term value might be in industrial.”
Gaurav Malhotra, partner and principal in the IT advisory digital supply chain division of professional services company Ernst & Young, also focuses on training when discussing the benefits that AR technology brings to manufacturing.
Malhotra says that a growing number of manufacturers are using AR to speed the training process.
“They use the technology to capture the steps that are needed for complex manufacturing functions,” says Malhotra. “They can then, through AR, impart that training to the different individuals who will be overseeing these functions.”
Malhotra says that more manufacturers are investigating AR largely because the technology behind it has improved. This is a trend, fortunately, that won’t be changing anytime soon, he says.
“The technology has come a long way,” says Malhotra. “Even in the last year or so, you have seen the improvements. AR devices are less bulky. The battery life is better. The heat that these glasses produce is not as severe. That’s important for an operator who wants to be able to use these glasses during an eight-hour shift. Workers couldn’t do that as effectively even a year or so ago. The maturity of the technology continues to evolve, and that is so important to its wider adoption.”
Companies, of course, are focused on their bottom lines. It’s why many have invested in onsite power production in the first place. They want to reduce their energy bills as one way to reduce their overall operating costs.
Efficiency and productivity, then, are key for companies and building owners, says Wiley. If a company’s profits drop, what can it do? The company can cut employees, of course, but that can have negative long-term ramifications.
What if companies can boost their efficiency instead? AR can help them do this. In the world of onsite power, AR technology can help workers fix microturbines and other onsite power equipment in less time, reducing downtime and labor costs. For Wiley, investing in AR tech is one way to bolster the bottom line.
“Companies and building owners are starting to realize that they can save money with AR,” says Wiley. “That is changing the industry. That is the one question I get asked most often. Everyone wants to know how AR can save them money.”
What about the future of AR technology? Malhotra says that someday, manufacturers will be using AR technology in ways that we can’t even imagine today. And that’s a good thing; these companies can significantly boost their bottom lines and efficiencies by embracing this technology.
“We can’t even predict what AR technology will look like or be able to do in the future,” says Malhotra. “Our thinking evolves on an almost daily basis.”