Augmented reality (AR) in various forms has been around for a while, an example is Pokemon, but its application on the factory floor is only now starting to take off. At the last Electra Mining Expo I had a chance to experience this on the Siemens stand, and I really thought I was going to fall off the edge of a platform. This prompted me to take a further look, and I discovered that AR is set to disrupt the manufacturing industry – the potential benefits are huge.
So what is AR? It’s a live view of a physical environment, with computer-generated sensory input like sound, video, graphics or GPS data, using a smartphone or headset goggles, to enhance the user’s experience. And how does AR differ from virtual reality (VR)? The answer is that AR enhances the real world while VR offers an escape from it. Both technologies will eventually change our lives just like smartphones have done. Here are some existing and potential applications.
AR is an opportunity to take proven and trusted technologies that are robust but don’t change much, and build on them with innovative ideas. For example in remote areas machine downtime is a costly problem. Manufacturers are exploring AR to give maintenance technicians instant support from experts. A new AR tool from Bosch Rexroth allows field technicians to work with a service expert easily, through the use of a smartphone or a head-mounted camera and headphones, allowing them to visualise the health of the machine and remotely troubleshoot problems.
Airbus is using an AR application to give assembly workers access to complete 3D models of each aircraft under production. This has been used on the A380 and A35 production lines to check the integrity of structural brackets. Lift manufacturer Thyssenkrupp is using Microsoft’s HoloLens technology as a service tool. Technicians can visualise and identify problems ahead of a job, and have remote, hands-free access to expert technical information when on site.
Modern manufacturing involves putting together hundreds and thousands of pieces in complex assemblies very quickly. AR allows technicians constant access to diagrams, schematics and work orders, right at the edge of their field of view, compared with glancing back and forth between the workpiece and a pdf with instructions. They can visualise the part and the assembly details through 3D hologram instructions. With over 200 km worth of wiring in every new 747-8 Freighter, Boeing is combining the power of voice with AR. Using Skylight wearable technology, technicians assembling complex wiring harnesses interact with the software on smart glasses using voice commands, remaining hands-free to perform their task. With no room for error, Boeing has cut wiring production time by 25% and reduced error rates effectively to zero.
You can deliver advanced training together with actual parts and assemblies, combining execution with learning. Previously Lockheed took years to assemble a finished F-35 aeroplane. Using HoloLens technology, engineers cut the time required by 30% with advanced learning, which involved representation of every step in the process; and GE Aviation leverages voice to interact with the AR app, Skylight on Glass – integrated with a WiFi-enabled torque wrench – to tighten B-nuts on jet engines, with 12% efficiency improvement.
In warehouse organisation and order fulfilment, employees could tap into a connected system that tells them exactly where products and goods are, allowing them to work at a much faster pace. DHL is testing mobile AR systems where employees use smart glasses that greatly increase productivity and reduce errors.
Microsoft’s HoloLens2 is already out. At $3500 it’s a bit beyond my budget, but it’s designed for the workplace. I’m thinking that work is going to be a whole lot more fun than it was when I first started on the factory floor.
In the 31 August issue of Dataweek on page 11 we swapped the names of two of the individuals pictured in the article: Andile Ngcaba, chairman for Convergence Partners, and Tshilidzi Marwala, professor and the vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. The website and electronic magazines have since been corrected. Dataweek apologises for the error.
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