Immersive technology that will transform the shop-floor includes augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR) and artificial intelligence. Whilst the visualisation technologies themselves are interesting, it is their presentation and use that is important for manufacturers. Currently visualisation solutions include smart glasses, smart headsets, tablets of smartphones and each has advantages and disadvantages.
Supporting these technologies will he high bandwidth automation networks supporting the deployment of more intelligent devices and sensors, and linking to cloud and edge computing. AR is about combining the real world and the virtual world: the AR device senses what the worker is looking at and displays the data needed. The expectation is that immersive technology will be suitable for a wide range of shop-floor and business applications.
Applications for immersive technology
Some assembly work involves the complex arrangement of many parts for correct assembly within a defined time. If an assembly worker or service engineer sees what to do in a clear sequence, with actions and components overlaid over their vision using smart glasses for example, then they will be able to learn and ‘do’ at the same time. It also leaves both hands free to carry out the task in question. The same technology is beneficial in a training environment by accessing a library of videos, PDFs or other training content for displaying via the smart device.
Many skilled workforces are aging, and the inadequate training of new operators is one of the main causes of production stoppages. The training of operators must include not only how to operate and maintain the facilities but also handling safety-related operations. Training new staff to reach operational efficiency can take many months before they get familiar with the operations and the facility.
Unlike a traditional classroom, VR immersive training facilitates interaction between the user, equipment and environment with simulations close to the actual conditions. It accelerates the transfer of knowledge and best practices during the process. It can also prepare personnel to act and communicate in a wide range of ‘what-if’ and emergency situations.
Using connected technology, operators can interact with machines better and learn how to use them in less time. Menus provide a mix of moving animations, guidance videos and augmented reality content including education, service/support and live data. Operators can also view up-to-date machine and production information, such as progress, remaining time, machine status. After processing, the smart device receives the new data for the operator to visualise. Should unexpected conditions interruptions occur, pop-up information windows direct the operator on how to respond. This advanced visualisation technology also supports predictive maintenance.
AR will help address the growing complexity and rate of change of automation equipment presenting a constant challenge to maintenance teams.Smart AR devices that senses what the worker is looking at and displays the information needed will reduce downtime They ensure general machine and device information and machine or application specific information like software programmes is always available and accessible.
Commissioning and field service are other areas that will enjoy expert support provided by immersive technology. Many companies operate remote manufacturing facilities that need experts to travel across the world. AR will support the local technicians with less expertise by having a remote expert seeing the same pictures/information as the local technician. It saves time and unnecessary expense for the expert to travel to site for problem solving or commissioning.
There are many other applications for immersive technology, like product design, quality control, robot integration and factory automation. Practical applications are rapidly growing with the major automation suppliers developing usable solutions. Microsoft is also launching its HoloLens 2 self-contained MR headsets with both eye and hand tracking for general use.