AR, VR, and Mixed Reality Technology – Uses in Manufacturing

For several years, NFL broadcasts have depended on AR technology.  Those first-down and scrimmage overlays that help fans follow the game are probably familiar to anyone who watches football on a regular basis. But it’s also used for some of the replays, and to customize digital marketing overlays for your broadcast location.  Few fans ever realize they’ve been interacting with AR technology while they cheer their team on to victory. 

This is a good example of the ease with which humans work with augmented reality programs.  It’s almost effortless.  This article will explain the benefits of using this technology in manufacturing facilities, and why it’s time to implement both AR and VR technology across the spectrum of manufacturing.

Terminology Explained

First, let’s define what augmented reality and virtual reality are, and how they differ from each other. 

AR (augmented reality) is an overlay of information like video, sound, or graphics upon a real-world environment.   Nothing changes about the real world, and you’re still interacting with it.  But with AR, you have additional immediate information visually available that helps you understand other things within that environment.

Virtual reality, or VR, is different.  It blocks out the real world and creates a whole new one.  This requires you to become immersed into that world, using what is called a digital twin to represent your body within it.  If you’ve ever played Skyrim VR or a similar game while wearing an Oculus Rift headset, you understand this concept. 

There’s also something called mixed reality (MR) or hybrid reality.   This allows digital objects and the real-world to interact in real-time.  Mixed reality allows 3D projections into the real world that can then be manipulated and engaged with, kind of like a digital twin of a yet-to-be built system, item, or machine projected into our world.  

Uses for AR and Mixed Reality

AR simplifies complex assembly situations.  Complex manufacturing processes still rely on human dexterity but can fail over human errors. And yet current robotics are not up to handling the hundreds or even thousands of differently-shaped parts that must be installed in exact sequence in some high-value manufacturing processes.   

This is when manufacturers like Airbus turn to AR and mixed reality displays like the Hololens. While using the Hololens heads up AR display, workers continue their work unencumbered while accessing complex, in-depth documentation.  Their Hololens display even overlays information where they’re working, significantly reducing the chance for error while improving completion rate times up to 30%. 

Augmented reality also allows virtual connection and interaction with subject matter experts who are physically elsewhere.  The ZF Group uses AR technology to connect experts in Germany and Switzerland to workers at their Gray Court, South Carolina plant who need help with builds and repairs.  In this way,on-site technicians benefit from the vast experience of their European colleagues.  Meanwhile, the company saves time and money due to the immediacy of the AR interaction vs. the time and cost to get an expert from one place to another. 

This has wide-reaching implications for multinational companies.  Sharing expert knowledge can now happen through a heads-up display and a good wifi connection.  This means your SMEs can stay put, giving them more productive time.  It will also decrease the stress of any employee who always seems to be needed “everywhere at once.”  Finally, it means help can be “on site” in moments rather than hours or days.  Imagine how that will change your emergency response plans. 

Uses for Virtual Reality 

Virtual Reality (VR) is not yet widely used.  But as the world moves toward 5G standardization and better data-throughput capabilities, this will change.  

Virtual reality offers manufacturers a chance for almost perfect assembly.  Workers will see virtual “real” views of instructions showing the exact sequence, depth, and placement of parts.   Some companies already looking at this application include Ford and Lockheed Martin. 

Additionally, VR will help engineers design, test, and alter manufacturing floor plans before a single blade of grass is removed from a potential site.   VR allows complete virtual walkthroughs, meaning manufacturing plants can be checked to ensure production flows properly from each department and there are no bottlenecks in the design.  Engineers can even plan simulations with virtual workers to check ergonomics of everything from tool placement to door alignments. 

It’s All About the Data 

One of the most interesting things about AR, VR and mixed reality  is how they capture data.  These insights can help you understand more completely how your space, your workers, and your product interact with each other, and how even small changes in scale, speed, or direction can create big changes in your throughput.  Use the technology to train workers for how things are today while gathering data to implement changes for how you want them to be tomorrow. 

Guest article written by: Technology writer Marla Keene works for AX Control, an industrial automation parts supplier located in North Carolina .  She writes about AR/VR, drones, green tech, artificial intelligence, and how technology is changing our world. Her articles have been featured in Servo Magazine, Robotics Tomorrow, and on other industry sites. Before working for AX Control, Marla spent twelve years running her own small business.

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