Just prior to the pandemic, IDC predicted that worldwide spending on augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) would be $18.8 billion in 2020, an increase of 78.5% over the technology’s $10.5 billion growth in 2019. IDC expects the worldwide spending on AR/VR products and services to achieve a five-year growth rate of 77% going forward. It’s yet to be seen how coronavirus will affect these projections.
A good portion of AR/VR spending is expected to take place in manufacturing. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, more than one-third of US manufacturers either already use VR and AR technology or they plan to do so in the next three years. Last year, Lenovo entered the industrial AR/VR market with ThinkReality.
An AR/VR Platform for Industry
The ThinkReality platform was designed to provide a scalable and streamlined path from proof of concept to productivity for enterprise AR/VR applications, including manufacturing. The platform builds, deploys, and manages applications and content to support industrial operations. “In the past two years, Lenovo has partnered with its customer base in digital transformation. As we started our AR and VR strategy, we met with enterprise companies around the world and asked about their digital strategy,” Nathan Pettyjohn, Lenovo’s AR/VR commercial lead, told Design News.
While many of the AR/VR companies have focused on consumer applications in gaming, Lenovo has put much of its market attention toward the enterprise world, including industrial, architecture, engineering, and manufacturing. “We have a team in industrial technology, from AI to IoT to edge computing,” said Pettyjohn. “We took the approach of looking at ROI in using AR, guided workflows, and hands-free training. Our challenge was to scale that in a big way.”
The Remote Expert Appear in AR/VR
Pettyjohn noted that the one of the most common uses of the technology is to virtually bring in outside experts to repair essential equipment. “One of the primary use cases is remote assistance. When a very valuable piece of equipment has an issue, in some cases, an expert has to fly in from across the country to evaluate and make repairs. The equipment can cost hundreds of thousands per day when it goes down,” said Pettyjohn.
AR and VR software allows the expert to see the equipment’s issues and to communicate the solution to the worker in the plant. “Now you can use cameras to put that person on the shop floor with the equipment, and the expert can see what’s on the ground,” said Pettyjohn. “The expert can write information on the screen of the smart goggles and explain how to repair the equipment.”
If you build enough knowledge into the software, even the remote expert may not be necessary. “You may not even need the remote assistant. It becomes a guided workflow with the software recognizing components and saying, ‘Here’s the part that needs repair,’ while using voice interaction,” said Pettyjohn. “The instructions can be pulled up on the glasses. If a remote expert is the number-one use case for AR and VR, guided workflow is number two.”
You can also use the essence of the repair process for general training on equipment and manufacturing processes. “Guided workflow works for training. Half of all companies are experiencing their skilled workforce leaving. Field teams are losing their experience,” said Pettyjohn. “There has to be a system to replace this skilled workforce.”
He noted that AR and VR is helping to transfer the knowledge of the retiring worker to the millennial generation coming into the workforce. “This training is more than the usual on-the-job training. We’ve found there is higher retention levels in this instruction format,” said PettyJohn. “The millennials are tech savvy. They’re using this type of virtual reality on their mobile phones. AR and VR are easy for them. They understand the technology.”
Technology Built for These Times
Pettyjohn noted that the manufacturing world has changed abruptly in the last few months. “What we found during this pandemic is an acceleration in adoption. Customers are looking for turnkey operations they can have up in days, not in quarters,” said Pettyjohn. “We’re trying to make it easier for customers to adopt the technology. We’re creating back-end integration so they can integrate the tools into their cloud applications. We need to make it easy in these current circumstances.”
The birthplace of AR and VR was in videogame software. Lenovo recognized that reality and turned to videogame leaders to collaborate on industrial use. The company worked with the Unity Real-Time Development Platform for some of its applications. “We collaborate with some of the traditional gaming companies like Unity. We have a Unity integration in our software development kit,” said Pettyjohn. “We’re working with the majority of the 3D AR and VR companies. Nontraditional enterprise software is becoming a real factor.”
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.