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Count the Ways VR and AR Beef Up Manufacturing

Image courtesy of David Ramos, staff at Getty Images panel feature.jpg
Manufacturers use virtual reality and augmented reality to train workers, conduct remote service, and improve processes.

The panel discussion at IME West -- Improving Manufacturing Processes through Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality -- explored the many ways virtual reality and augmented reality have improved manufacturing. Panelists covered core technological requirements, best practices, and core training techniques for implementing AR-based work-instruction systems. They also looked at how this technology integrates into existing enterprise systems and how manufacturers can use VR/AR systems for remote diagnostics and maintenance.

Please note that panelists often used the term XR to mean VR, AR, or both in the discussion.

Why Do We Need VR and AR

Reality systems can be used as a simulation of the plant when it comes to design and layout. “With VR, you can be free to look at different scenarios. Change the lighting, change the factory floor,” said Elizabeth Baron, senior manager of enterprise solution architecture at Unity Technologies. “You can simulate different scenarios safely. The AR can be used to get information to you to make smart decisions.”

Training is also a major advantage that comes with XR systems. “Manufacturers are using AR to train their line workers and to cross-train. The AR system can update the employee file so the company knows who is trained on what,” said Jason Bean, IIoT market specialist at Pepper+Fuchs. “Then they can decide which employee to put where based on what they’re trained with. We developed the system with the local university. So far, manufacturers have saved time in training employees.”

XR technology can also track issues in the plant before breakdowns or stoppages. “With VR, AR, and IoT, people see if there is an event. That comes in from the IoT, and the VR and AR identify the context and track what they are doing. That’s powerful,” Trey Taylor, Fairbanks, director of digital innovation at Morse Defense. “You get muscle memory from working with the virtual artifacts.”

The XR systems can be placed on plant employees to alert them when something out of the ordinary occurs. “There are applications where engineers with wearable devices are directed to the manufacturing issues before they become problems,” said Baron. “It’s ambient intelligence. The technology identifies problems before they occur.”

VR and AR for Worker Training

XR for training has become more efficient and effective than traditional training. “With traditional training, you have to pair the employee with someone and schedule a time. With AR, you can train employees without tying up another employee. You can train on a greater scale and do it at the employee's pace,” said Bean. “One manufacturer tested it with an employee with Downs Syndrome and found they succeeded with AR in ways they didn’t succeed with traditional training. So now the Downs employee is doing more complex work.”

XR training can travel to places that traditional training has a hard time reaching. “We use AR to train sailors. With AR, you get finite detail of the internal works of systems. That covers safety concerns and lock-out systems. IT can’t take the training on a roadshow,” said Taylor. “With the XR, you don’t have borders. You have an ecosystem of training in four different countries. And the training retention is high. You get six- to nine-month retention instead of a month or two.”

As for effectiveness, users retain the training longer with XR. “The retention is huge. Users retain the knowledge and the interaction, so they have a better understanding of how it works,” said Baron. “You can use training and then put them in a dangerous situation. They will know how to get out of dangerous situations.”

Using AR and VR for Remote Support

XR is starting to get deployed as a remote servicing technology. “We use it on our support. The support personnel used to come to the factory to learn how to fix the problem. Now we can drop the solution at the site virtually,” said Taylor. “We can’t always send an engineer to where the Navy is. Now we have two field service guys for a particular application for the whole world. With XR, I can get my remote service guy onto the boat when it’s at sea.”

Remote service is particularly useful in emergencies. “What happens when there is an unanticipated problem? With XR, we can remote a system and see where it is breaking down and have collaborative problem-solving on the scene with no traveling time,” said Baron. “That saves the day multiple times.”

The time and expense saved by remote service can be considerable. “I’ve seen system integrators leveraging this training, especially during the pandemic,” said Bean. “An Australian client was able to solve a problem in six hours that would have taken days if he had to travel.”

As well as helping the client, XR remote service saves wear and tear on service personnel. “Rather than losing time with people in transit, rather than losing two days a week, it is solved with remote,” said Taylor. “And the employee is happy to not have to travel.”

Overcoming Resistance to VR and AR

For XR systems to be effective, planning and integration are critical. “Often users don’t have the infrastructure to support XR. And if the technology is foreign to the users, they won’t deploy it,” said Bean. “If you don’t involve the users when you deploy it, they won’t use it.”

One of the keys to a successful deployment is introducing the technology in stages. “Start small on well-defined processes that work,” said Taylor. “There is s significant loss of time if you don’t do this upfront. The union in our plant had concerns. Some people experienced photosensitivity. You can design the system to protect those who use it.”

Overcoming resistance requires careful planning. “I faced the storm cloud of resistance to the use of XR. “The IT department has to validate the security models,” said Baron. “It’s on each company to decide on the integration with IT. We lean on the suppliers for testimonials. We ask how they made sure the data is safe.”

Security is a particular issue in the defense industry. “In the defense space, we have to ensure security. We have a cloud. It’s shared but it’s also protected,” said Taylor. “It’s a higher investment if you have to supply your own IT.”

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