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How Virtual Reality Technology Is Changing Manufacturing

Updated Jan 03, 2024

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Virtual technology has been around for more than 50 years, but augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have only recently shown up in manufacturing environments. These technologies are well on their way to more widespread adoption. 

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. Many see virtual technology as important to staying competitive in the manufacturing marketplace. 

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.

FYIDid you know

VR in commercial settings isn’t as rare as you may think. Companies such as Harley-Davidson, Ford, Walmart and Chipotle all use VR in manufacturing products and training new employees. Learn more about ways companies are using VR and AR to improve their operations.

How VR technology is changing manufacturing

Inventory management

Logistics company DHL was among the first to incorporate AR in its inventory management. In cooperation with DHL customer Ricoh and wearable computing solutions expert Ubimax, it used smart glasses and AR to implement a “vision picking” pilot program in warehousing operations. Graphics displayed on the smart glasses guided workers through the warehouse to reduce errors and quicken the picking process. The smart glasses recorded necessary tracking data without the employee needing to stop and enter data into a computer. The pilot program proved that AR offers added value to logistics and resulted in a 15 percent efficiency increase during the picking process. The technology was implemented in DHL warehouses around the world. [See related article: The Best POS Systems of 2024]

Vehicle design and build

VR is becoming an industry norm for leading automobile companies. Joining automakers such as Ford, who has been using virtual technology since 1999, Hyundai now implements VR and 3D digital tools when designing new vehicles and parts. VR allows the designers to test models in specific contexts that mimic real-world scenarios — something that was impossible with the clay models of the past. Hyundai currently has a VR design review system, allowing team members around the world to thoroughly look at every step of the design and modeling process.

Using virtual technologies delivers significant improvements in cost, time and quality. With VR, product designers and engineers can explore options that would have been cost- or time-prohibitive in the past. In the case of massive companies like Hyundai, employees have less need to travel to complete designs in person. 

Maintenance and assembly training

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 the worker needs to do to initiate a repair, for instance, is gaze at the machine part in need of fixing. 

For several years now, Lincoln Property Company has used virtual reality technology to train workers in HVAC repairs and installations. Despite VR’s hefty price tag, LPC has found the training cost-effective because it minimizes time, travel and material costs. Beyond the numbers, LPC and other companies that employ VR training have found that participant engagement is far greater than in webinars or other online training options.

Employees tend to be impressed by the relative novelty of virtual reality as well as the way it breaks up routine in an otherwise run-of-the-mill training session. They often describe VR training as “cool” and “fun.” 

Did You Know?Did you know

The COVID-19 pandemic played an encouraging role in the development of VR and AR spaces. There was a more obvious need for ways to engage professionally, educationally and socially during remote, virtual situations. Employees attended VR meetings and students took 3D tours of museums online.

Factory floor planning

Virtual technology is also being implemented for factory floor planning, construction 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. 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 making any changes in the physical world.

Even ergonomics can be tested and refined to assure everything runs smoothly and efficiently in the new 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 faster. 

>> Learn More: How Virtual Reality Is Changing Construction

Improved worker safety

Although the overall safety for those working in manufacturing has significantly improved over the years, even one injury or fatality is too many. Additional safety is one of the advantages of virtual reality in manufacturing.

Virtual reality allows plant managers to simulate assembly line configurations and the processes involved in production, which allows them to identify potentially dangerous situations. Virtual reality may also be used as a way to immerse employees in a future workstation to capture their task proficiency, movement and feasibility. This could ultimately eliminate the risk of potential injuries and/or fatalities.

Better-developed products 

The use of virtual reality allows for the possibility of almost perfect assembly. Goggles that contain depth sensors, cameras and motion sensors provide a view of a working environment, engineers and workers, and how the instructions and parts are assembled. 

Several companies are using virtual reality to ensure particular components are assembled properly. For example, Lockheed Martin, the defense and aerospace company, has an entire virtual reality lab dedicated to product design and manufacturing. After using VR to build the F-35, Lockheed Martin found that engineers could not only work faster, but with an accuracy of about 96 percent. The lab, which is one of the largest of its kind, allows engineers to evaluate the efficacy, cost and risk of designs and models in a low-stakes environment. Similarly, Boeing technicians use VR smart glasses that provide the necessary instructions for each wiring repair, reducing the necessary work time by 25 percent. 

Investing in VR at the assembly stage can result in longer-lasting and even better-working products for your customers, minimizing the expenses of customer service and repairs later on. Virtual reality in development can also help you decide whether or not a project will be successful before you spend too much time and money on it. 

TipBottom line

VR and AR can enable your customers to virtually try your products before buying them. Companies like Home Depot and Warby Parker encourage customers to test the look of products in the actual ways they would be used.

Is 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.

The use of VR technology is expected to increase sharply in the next few years. VR tech could even become available on all phones and devices. Even though adoption may be slow in certain countries, North America is expected to continue as the hottest market for VR, with increases across the Asian-Pacific market. The rising popularity in commercial and professional applications is expected to trickle down to personal and recreational use as well — even though the training sector is expected to dominate VR usage.

Companies like Google and Oculus are at the forefront of spreading virtual reality to the general public as they create VR devices to widen the virtual world and lower the costs of this technology. Shifting from a VR headset tethered to a computer to an untethered headset — or even a VR smart device — makes the possible incorporations of VR nearly limitless. 

Imagine the new spaces VR can transition into: treating patients with phobias through virtual immersion therapy, going on virtual shopping trips in which you can view clothing on your body before buying, or rooting for your favorite sports team from the best seat in the house every time. Since VR is already used by some museums, it is easy to imagine the technology opening up possibilities for attending live events such as concerts and conferences without ever leaving your home. Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research expects VR to add $18.9 billion to the entertainment sector in coming years. Virtual reality technologies could also change the journalism landscape, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in a story and draw their own conclusions more directly from the information and evidence presented to them. 

To get to a world where VR and AR are the norms across all spheres of manufacturing and life, the industry must first overcome its prohibitive price tag, lack of manufacturing competition, and motion sickness-related side effects after use. 

Sean Peek
Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.
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