Imagine having an expert watch over your shoulder as you perform a difficult task. Gently guiding you through each step, they can stop you from making any mistakes and help you finish the task quicker than you ever could working alone. The concept is simple enough, but where do you find such an expert? Virtual reality could be the answer.
Rather than a physical presence, support is given and guidance displayed to the end user through a computer with graphic overlay displays. This is the promise of virtual reality, or VR. Originally touted as a gaming and entertainment technology, VR is rapidly becoming essential in the manufacturing industry. But what exactly is VR, and how can it improve efficiency and profits?
Technology Behind Virtual Reality
Sophisticated computer-aided design (CAD) packages and graphics programs can display realistic images on your computer screen. VR takes this a step further, either by integrating the computer-generated images with the real world, or creating an entirely new world.
Overlaying computer graphics onto a screen showing the real world is termed “Augmented Reality,” or AR. A mobile video game that utilizes the camera of a mobile device is the best known example, but there is a growing number of manufacturing applications as well. True VR goes a step further, immersing the user in a completely computer-generated world.
AR is considered a subset of VR, but there are differences. An AR system can take any screen showing the real world and overlay graphics. The infamous Google Glass project displayed graphics in a screen close up to the eye. Other systems use the screens on mobile phones and tablets.
VR systems require the user to wear a headset containing two small screens, one for each eye. By completely occupying the wearer’s field of view, these provide the sense of being immersed in a computer-generated – and therefore virtual – world.
Manufacturing with AR
Six application areas are emerging in the world of manufacturing. Some examples include:
Assembly – A car manufacturer is exploring the use of AR to guide line workers through complex assembly tasks. A wind turbine manufacturer is doing the same. In both cases, the goal is to prevent mistakes while increasing productivity.
Maintenance – Rather than refer to a paper manual or tablet, AR overlays key information on a display of the maintenance work scene. A technician can work faster as each step in a troubleshooting or repair process is displayed on top of the actual equipment they’re working on. Such a tool could potentially tap into the predictive analytics of a “big data” maintenance system.
Expert Assistance – Companies ranging from those in aerospace and machine tools to an elevator manufacturer are exploring how AR can be used to deliver expert support. When a technician is equipped with goggles or a screen, an expert can guide him or her through a complex sequence of steps by annotating points in the real world. This saves time and travel costs while ensuring the task gets done faster.
Quality Control – An automaker is looking to cut costs. AR can both guide operators through inspection tasks and perform the actual inspections, identifying where parts are missing or have been incorrectly assembled.
Inventory Picking – Need to retrieve a kit of parts from a large warehouse or storage area? Rather than printing and carrying sheets of paper and giving the location of each item, an AR display shows a warehouse worker where each item on a list is located. Such systems have been tested by logistics companies and more implementations are sure to follow.
Training – AR speeds up training and onboarding of new workers while also reducing the need for instructors to be present. A major consulting organization projects this will go a long way towards alleviating the approaching skills shortage.
Manufacturing with VR
Manufacturing applications of VR are less advanced than those using AR. However, a number of them are already gathering steam. Some examples include:
Workplace Design and Layout – Complex, automated facilities are expensive to lay out. VR reduces risk and can accelerate implementation by allowing engineers to quickly identify problems. Safety and workplace ergonomics are particular beneficiaries as both manufacturers and equipment builders adopt VR.
Equipment Design – A builder of complex production equipment is using VR to identify potential problems before the equipment is built. This reduces the risk of delays and costly rework.
Training – Total immersion in a “digital twin” world is an excellent way to train employees and enable them to practice specific skills. Examples include planning machine and line changeovers and rehearsing emergency drills. When used in this way, VR helps to avoid costly downtime while simultaneously reducing the risk of errors or poor decision-making.
Product Development – Several automotive companies already use VR during product development. In this case, VR systems allow engineers and designers to view and debate key features without incurring the cost of physical prototypes. Benefits include faster time-to-market and improved product design.
Are You Watching or Climbing on Board?
Virtual reality and augmented reality are no longer just for gaming and entertainment. With Industry 4.0 gaining momentum, both technologies will soon have a lot to offer to the manufacturing industry. Forward-thinking manufacturers are already testing and deploying the technology, learning how to extract the most value from it while stealing a march on their competitors. Where do you stand?