What are the applications of augmented reality (AR) in manufacturing?

What are the applications of augmented reality (AR) in manufacturing?

By Kishore Ravichandran

Imagine the costs that could be saved by predicting the life cycle of a piece of equipment, identifying production downtime, faster warehousing delivery methods, an innovative and faster design process, and other advantages in the manufacturing sector. All this could come into reality with just one technology, augmented reality (AR), which is on the brink of changing how we work. In the manufacturing sector, AR provides endless opportunities, from product design to parts procurement and on through final assembly and quality control.

There are many applications in the manufacturing sector waiting to be explored by augmented reality. These include predictive maintenance, streamlined logistics, more efficient product design and development, optimized assembly schedule and processes, and expert support with data management.

What is AR?

Augmented reality is a technology that superimposes computer-generated images onto a live environment, helping the user to analyze the real-world situation in more detail. AR is used often with laptops, smartphones, and tablets, where digital images and graphics intersect and interact with the real world to enhance the experience. After capturing the input from the devices, the AR application recognizes the target, processes the image, and augments it with pictures, video, and audio to create  an illusion that can effectively engage users in a virtual world. The hardware components of AR include:

  • Sensors/tracking: Digital cameras and other optical sensors, accelerometers, GPS, gyroscopes, solid-state compasses, RFID, and wireless sensors
  • Input devices from users: Microphones, touch screens, gesture devices, stylus, pointers, and gloves or other body wear
  • CPU and display/output devices: Smart glasses, lenses, laptops, smartphones, and tablets  

How can AR be used in manufacturing?

There are many applications in the manufacturing sector waiting to be explored by augmented reality. These include predictive maintenance, streamlined logistics, more efficient product design and development, optimized assembly schedule and processes, and expert support with data management.

Equipment maintenance:

Preventive maintenance is performed on pieces of equipment at regular time intervals while they are running to maintain the working capability of the machines, which reduces unwanted maintenance and repair costs.  Imagine if the maintenance crew could see exactly what equipment and hardware needed servicing, as well as any potential issues. The maintenance crew could be directed by AR devices to the exact location of a mechanical component, valve, or process measurement in need of a maintenance check. Wireless sensor signals coming from a cloud-computing network that can be used for diagnostic intelligence  measurements of machinery, control valves, or electronic transmitters are transformed into insightful information so a technician can make an immediate repair. This could reduce a lot of costs associated with machine failure, repair, and replacement.

Use cases:

In 2011, Airbus deployed its Supply Augmented Reality Tool (SART) to improve quality control and increase efficiency. SART allows maintenance workers to identify parts that need repair or replacement using digital-enabled overlays on physical system components.

Coca-Cola has partnered with Pristine, a tech startup based in Austin, Texas, to test AR in several bottling facilities for service calls, equipment inspections, and routine audits.

As a tool for service operations, Microsoft’s HoloLens technology is being used by technicians of elevator manufacturer thyssenkrupp. HoloLens, a holographic computer running on Windows 10, helps  the service technicians in planning the site visit ahead by having remote access to the technical information, leading to less work onsite and increased uptime performance.

Fieldbit enables enterprises to create, capture, and efficiently share knowledge across entire organizations using smart glasses and smartphones.

Product design and development:

Researchers put in a great deal of effort to identify a technology and then conceptualize, prototype, and build the product. At each stage of the product design, AR can help the stakeholders save a lot of time, allowing them to implement technologies without any time lag. For instance, a product designer can visualize his or her findings in the real world to check whether or not it is feasible to get into the next stage. The product can be given a digital life, which helps in observing and understanding each spatial context and the ongoing activity surrounding the product. It can help in expediting the investment, as different stakeholders could virtually see the working model and the benefits attained. During the development stages, it can streamline the process, especially when paired with other prototyping methods.

Use cases:

After a successful pilot stage, Ford has begun using AR technology to create 3D models that eliminate the need to build every design prototype with clay.

In the virtual engineering lab located in Wolfsburg, Germany, Volkswagen’s vehicle designers and engineers  make use of augmented reality to come up with novel designs by running various design iterations in less time.

Assembly of parts:

An automobile contains more than 10,000 parts sourced from different suppliers. The process flow involves five stages: press shop, body shop, painting, final assembly, and inspection. To reduce costly downtime, manufacturers can leverage the ability to use AR to virtually bring in remote experts to troubleshoot any mechanical issues holding up a production line. With voice command capabilities and barcode readers, it is a huge time saver that improves productivity, produces higher quality, and enhances ergonomics. To help workers continue the work without having to cross check with the manual instructions, AR increases worker efficiency by displaying virtual instructions in their line of sight.

Use cases:

Volvo is using Microsoft’s HoloLens to allow production-line workers to digitally view assembly instructions in real time while working to assemble vehicle parts using instructions, technical drawings, and even videos from the last person who completed the procedure viewed in AR glasses.

In 2017, GE technicians using Upskill’s Skylight platform wired a wind turbine control panel with virtual work instructions using smart glasses. The AR headset improved the technicians’ wiring performance by 34%.

Quick access to parts in warehousing and faster delivery:

In logistics, vision technology using AR devices assists workers in the picking process by displaying information upfront on part details such as the location of picks and drops. Employees have to do multiple tasks in order fulfillment and warehouse organization. In the current setup, a worker has to check the information, find the necessary product, scan it and report the data, deliver it to the loading dock, and then sign off on the order. With the use of AR, the workers can identify the parts virtually and scan within the AR device, leaving little to no need for manual work. In this way, the worker only needs to fetch the product and forward it to delivery.

Use cases:

DHL is testing mobile AR systems in local environments. Mobile AR systems by Knapp, SAP, and Ubimax that are in the late field-test phase of vision picking include a head-mounted display, cameras, a wearable PC, and battery packs that can provide enough energy for a full work shift. The benefits of using vision picking software include real-time object recognition, barcode reading, indoor navigation, and seamless integration of information with the warehouse management system.

DHL employees use smart glasses from Ubimax that greatly increase productivity and reduce errors.

Schnellecke Logistics partnered with Ubimax to use its Frontline AR platform. Using the xPick application along with the xBan wrist-worn RFID reader, this system enables  simultaneous multi-order picking for up to 24 vehicles.

Other use cases of AR in logistics include transportation optimization, last-mile delivery, and enhanced value-added services.

Safety training and instructions to staff:

New employees tend to be unfamiliar with necessary protocols, equipment, and procedures.  This can lead to safety issues. Companies invest a huge sum of money and time to train new employees. But inexperienced personnel can be trained, informed, and protected at all times without wasting additional resources with the right AR applications and devices.

Use cases:

Cisco built an AR experience using Blippar’s Blippbuilder to let technicians launch virtual demonstrations straight from their devices. This removed the need to read manuals, leading to reduced customer support cases, a 30% increase in installation efficiency, and a 90% increase in first-time accuracy.

Blippar collaborated with manufacturing innovation institute HSSMI to allow employees to scan their company’s logo at any location to receive virtual safety training in their chosen language.

These are a few applications in the manufacturing sector that resulted in fruitful benefits for the companies. With companies adapting to changes and following lean methodologies, AR is expected to become a reality very soon in the manufacturing sector.

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