Manufacturing has begun a new reality as next-generation VR and AR become available.
Virtual technology has been around for more than 50 years, but it's only been recently that augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have shown up in manufacturing environments. The technologies are well on their way to more widespread adoption. More than 1 in 3 U.S. manufacturers currently use or expect to adopt VR and AR by 2018, according to a recent survey by PWC.
Early adopters in the manufacturing industry are thinking innovatively when it comes to AR and VR. As they consider the future, they're coming up with ways to use these potentially disruptive technologies to improve worker safety, speed new products to market, reduce training costs and increase productivity, to name just a few uses. Many see virtual technology as important to staying competitive in the manufacturing marketplace. [Read related story: Reality Check: VR vs. AR vs. MR]
Here are a few examples of how some companies are using AR and VR to change their manufacturing and allied processes – and how they're already benefiting from these technologies.
Logistics company DHL successfully carried out a pilot project testing smart glasses and AR in a warehouse in the Netherlands. In cooperation with DHL customer Ricoh and wearable computing solutions expert Ubimax, it used the technology to implement "vision picking" in warehousing operations. Workers were guided through the warehouse by graphics displayed on the smart glass to speed up the picking process and reduce errors. The pilot proved that AR offers added value to logistics and resulted in a 25 percent efficiency increase during the picking process.
Design and build
Ford was one of the first automakers to go all in on virtual technology, beginning in 1999. In 2014, Forbes reported that the company employed dedicated virtual reality specialists to lead the way for engineers to design and build entire vehicles, including autonomous vehicles, in a virtual environment. Today, Ford has a mandatory, multifunctional VR review for all vehicles that go into production.
Using virtual technologies delivers significant improvements in the areas of cost, time and quality. With VR, product designers and engineers have the ability to explore options that would have been cost- or time-prohibitive in the past.
Maintenance and assembly training
Numerous studies point to a reduction in workers available for manufacturing jobs and a growing skill gap. In the next decade, 2 million of the available 3.5 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. will go unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers, according to a 2015 study by Deloitte.
AR and VR can speed the onboarding of new workers and improve worker productivity by offering more immersive on-the-job training. AR smart glasses that project video, graphics and text can visually guide a worker, step by step, through assembly or maintenance tasks. All that's needed for the worker to complete a repair, for instance, is to gaze at the machine part to be repaired.
Software provider Upskill and GE Renewable Energy conducted a productivity study using AR to assist workers in wiring a wind turbine. A GE Renewable technician compared first-time use of smart glasses powered with Upskill's Skylight software against the traditional process for wiring of a wind turbine. The technician saw an immediate 34.5 percent productivity improvement using AR.
Factory floor planning
Virtual technology is also being used for factory floor planning and manufacturing trade events. In mass-production manufacturing, factory planning – where to place tools, equipment and personnel – is crucial for productivity and efficiency.
Engineering a new plant or altering an existing one involves design, testing and trials, and any unexpected delays or a production line shutdown, even a temporary one, can be very costly. Virtual technologies can simplify and significantly shorten the process. Virtual plants can be designed to test production flows and how workers and robots perform tasks before changes are made in the physical world. Even ergonomics can be tested and refined to assure everything runs smoothly and efficiently in the new plant or altered line or plant. Initial trials suggest that a virtually planned floor can be completed in a fraction of the time, bringing new products to the line fast. Here's one example that illustrates this type of virtual testing.
Virtual technology here to stay?
It's still too early to know if AR and VR investments reflect a coming revolution, forever changing manufacturing as we know it, or if early adopters have embarked on a time of experimentation. Either way, virtual technology in manufacturing can no longer be described as all hype.