Over the past three decades, billions of dollars have been spent by companies on technology to increase the productivity of knowledge workers through process automation, communication and other enablers, and these have increased productivity throughout the economy. There has been much less focus on enhancing the productivity of industrial and technical workers through technology investments.
That is, until now. Advancements in technology—specifically, the confluence of greater bandwidth, imaging technologies and digitized information—have led the way in creating a powerful new tool to increase the productivity of the industrial workforce, including assemblers, operators, and technicians in manufacturing.
By augmenting the information, data, images, skills or experience that workers can access in real-time through smartphones, tablets or smart glasses, manufacturers can increase worker productivity by an order of magnitude.
Manufacturing production lines are complex and varied, and a piece of equipment can require dozens of maintenance procedures that involve hundreds of components and complex steps. Augmenting the skills of the workforce with remote expert assistance and equipment diagnostics through augmented reality (AR) brings benefits on many fronts.
“Augmented reality offers the promise of providing every member of the industrial workforce with relevant, contextual and customized information and guidance from across the enterprise into their field of view in a seamless, hands-free, intuitive manner that transforms the way they work,” said Amar Dhaliwal, CEO of Atheer Inc.
With remote support through an AR device, technicians can access engineering data and digital annotations to guide them through a procedure. Vast digital libraries of recorded procedures can be accessed in a real-time site by an AR-equipped technician. Additionally, a repair technician can “broadcast” what they are viewing to an expert off-site who views the video or images and can diagnose an issue; technical experts are no longer needed in every location. AR often pays for itself in saved travel costs alone. It can also help stem the loss of tribal knowledge as experienced, technically skilled workers continue to retire.
The capabilities and benefits of AR-based information and instruction go beyond those of static, hard-copy instruction manuals. AR information can be delivered step-by-step in real-time and in context; it can be presented as any combination of simple 2D and complex 3D digital assets; and it can be viewed without shifting attention away from a workpiece. Digital instructions can be remotely updated a single time to reflect changes in product design or new best practices and distributed widely to a remote workforce.
Maintenance & Repair
These operations benefit from AR for diagnostics, maintenance and repair of production equipment. A common use case is manufacturers with foreign plants where workers are not fluent in English or technically skilled. Any scenario of remotely distributed plants where it is cost-prohibitive to have an on-site technical expert for every possible production stoppage is a strong use case for AR.
Technical Field Support
AR is particularly valuable in servicing complicated pieces of equipment or facilities with few experienced personnel. It can be used to deliver expert support remotely from the OEM without needing to physically bring in specialists. For example, the aviation industry uses AR for maintenance and repair operations given the high level of technical expertise required. Service technicians can tap into databases of knowledge and technical information to access the information when they need it. Volkswagen Group and Porsche are currently large Atheer customers in the automotive industry.
Inspection & Surveying
Remote inspection and surveying reduce transportation costs. Detailed visual information can easily be transmitted directly to technicians who can evaluate it and determine the status or safety of equipment, materials or infrastructure. This is often carried out by exploiting the remote nature of drones and other unattended vehicles and platforms.
Cargo & Warehouse Operations
Cargo workers can be efficiently directed to specific locations and actions through an AR application and headset instead of using paper printouts. An instructive use case is the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 290 airlines in the air travel and air cargo industries, with member airlines carrying about 82% of the world’s air traffic. In 2018, IATA began to pilot the Atheer AR platform, and reported it achieved greatly increased performance in cargo handling operations—a 30% improvement in the speed of cargo handling and a 90% reduction in errors.
AR can have a major impact on speed and accuracy of moving cargo through air cargo warehouses. The Atheer AR platform delivered digital work instruction that provided air cargo operators instant access to clear, consistent and unambiguous work instructions for key tasks such as accepting cargo as ready for air carriage. The work instructions were delivered directly into the field of view of warehouse cargo handlers though the use of smart glasses, tablets or smartphones and updated quickly and accurately via wireless connections from the mobile devices used by the warehouse.
Training & Compliance
AR can guide a technician remotely through learning a new process with greater levels of learning over classroom instruction. It has been widely demonstrated that guiding someone through a task and showing them how to do it visually—thus experientially—has a greater impact on learning than classroom learning. Training a remote workforce is a strong use case for AR.
AR is growing in the manufacturing technology ecosystem, although it still faces some challenges. Industrial workers typically have low tolerance for new technology or new processes that appear to get in the way of completing their work or impacting their quotas. They need to get value from it in short order, or they will not use it. Any technology-based addition to the workload of industrial workers will only gain acceptance and traction if it is genuinely easy to use.
“We have found that the manufacturing market still has a few misconceptions about AR, but when customers see that the applications of AR are extremely practical and straightforward, they understand how it can potentially benefit them,” said Dhaliwal. “They often look for opportunities where the technology is likely to provide a step level change in their business, something with a 10 to 20% impact on ROI.”
AR is projected to continue to grow rapidly as use cases become more widely communicated. PwC estimates that more than 14 million workers will wear smart glasses by 2025, up from 400,000 in 2016.
Advancements in technology have led the way in creating AR as a powerful new tool to increase the productivity of the manufacturing workforce. By augmenting the information, data, images, skills or experience that workers can access in real-time through smartphones, tablets or smart glasses, manufacturers can increase worker productivity by an order of magnitude.
AR is also helping stem the loss of tribal knowledge as experienced, technically skilled workers retire. There are five main categories of use cases for AR: maintenance and repair, technical field support, inspection and surveying, cargo and warehouse operations, and training and compliance.
Tim Shinbara is the CTO and vice president of manufacturing technology of the Association of Manufacturing Technology (AMT) and leads activities related to research and development (R&D), standards, transformative technology, and improving access to technology-related resources. Shinbara serves on the executive committee of America Makes—the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII,) and is the AMT liaison for the Additive Working Group and Technology Issues Committee for members within AMT.