If you could improve safety and efficiency in your plants, lower travel costs and more efficiently train employees with one technology, would you consider adopting it? If it could increase your competitive advantage as a manufacturer or make your process plant remain online with fewer unplanned shutdowns, would you adopt it?
For many early adopters of augmented reality (AR) technology, the decision to incorporate AR into their business, whether it was for service-related tasks, manufacturing or knowledge transfer, has proven to be a game-changer. According to a whitepaper published by PTC, the growth in the industrial internet of things (IIoT) and digital content, along with maturing AR hardware, is fueling the emergence of more and more powerful AR experiences.
Augmented reality offers “a view of the real, physical world in which elements are enhanced by computer-generated input. These inputs may range include sound or video or contain graphics of the internal workings of a valve or schematics for a process control system.”
There are many applications for this technology, on the manufacturing floor and in process control plants. This article examines some of the ways AR can be used as well as the challenges of adoption.
Transfer Knowledge and Excite Recruits
As was mentioned in a recent article on VALVEmagazine.com, training of manufacturing recruits is a huge issue, with time and consistency being among the biggest concerns for companies trying to get new recruits quickly into their jobs. Most manufacturers use on-the-floor time with advanced personnel as their only training. But this method is fraught with problems, especially as older workers are now retiring in record numbers and recruits come into their positions with relatively few of the skills needed for manufacturing jobs.
Thus, when companies consider delving into AR, one of the most frequently mentioned reasons is that it can be used as an advanced instruction and guidance tool. In industries such as oil refining or chemical manufacturing, where even minor errors can have devastating results, being able to train this way could make a significant difference.
In a recent webinar held in conjunction with PTC, Tom Mainelli, program vice president of devices and AR/VR at market research firm IDC, shared the results of a survey in which industrial respondents reported this has become one of the top uses of AR.
Beyond training, though, AR is an exciting technology that also lures younger recruits into manufacturing. Even the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) states in a recent article, that “manufacturers need to look around the plant, make the move to update your processes and utilize new technology so you really are ‘cool’. This generation will be able to help you improve and grow, if you have the right tools for them to capitalize on.” Certainly, AR qualifies in the cool category.
Another advantage is that AR lowers the need for expensive travel. Using this technology, employers can create training programs that can be used anywhere in the world their organization has locations. Whether it’s for new recruits or for continuing education or helping employees upgrade skills, AR-supported programs reduce the need for travel.
Sales and Support
AR is also being used to increase sales and drive improved marketing. This is especially true for manufacturers of complex machinery or components that are heavy and difficult or impossible to transport for demonstration. Valve manufacturers are among those that can benefit most from AR technology by using it to get inside a valve and demonstrate how it can work within a process.
With AR, it is also possible to show the device in its environment, which gives sales reps the opportunity to demonstrate the value of a product in a particular process.
Further, once the product is purchased, AR can be used to help end users make the best and most efficient use of products they do purchase. Operating instructions can be built into an AR program so that, during installation and setup, personnel are guided through the process more efficiently, and at less cost, than having a manufacturer’s rep on site.
Then, if a problem occurs or maintenance is required, AR can make it easier for user personnel to understand the complexities of a product and be led, step-by-step, through the repair process. It can also ensure that service logs are easily accessible in the environment, without the necessity of stopping work to sift through another program or logs.
For manufacturers with staff technicians who go to customers’ plants to maintain or repair equipment, AR makes it possible to send less-seasoned technicians to the site and keep the experts at the head office. The senior technician in the home office can see the problem along with an on-site junior technician. Together they can go through the process of repair faster and at less cost, with better first-time fix rates, benefitting both the manufacturer and the customer.
One of the drawbacks to instituting AR in any manufacturing plant is, of course, the cost. It can also be difficult to integrate it with whatever smart systems are already in place. However, for those who have implemented AR, especially for service to customers, the cost savings and benefits of increased customer satisfaction are more than paying for the cost of implementation.
Another challenge is the problem of computer vision. For AR to work effectively, the device must be able to see and track the world around it and be able to augment and overlay information in that view of the world. It’s also necessary to have a camera to capture the real world and a screen to display the AR. While there are smartphones and tablets that can do this, there are also headsets and eyewear for the best hands-free experience. These wearable devices are still relatively expensive, but as AR becomes more widely used, the prices should go down.
The biggest challenge, though, is in content creation. You must answer the questions, “With what shall I augment the world around me? Where does the content come from and how do I present the right info at the right time? And how and when do I get experts involved?”
There is also the question of time and expertise. While manufacturers may want to integrate AR into a process, it’s very difficult to create a team that knows enough about this new technology to make informed choices and put it in place. There won’t be a lot of AR experts on anybody’s staff today, so it is necessary to hire expertise from organizations with the know-how to implement the right steps at the right time.
While implementing AR in a valve manufacturing or process control plant can be a good investment, it is important to have a solid goal in mind for the first steps. Map out how you are going to use the technology. Focus on a specific use case to start, generate return on that, and then move on to the next process.