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AR and VR: A safe landing on the plant floor

Revolutionize factory visibility with augmented and virtual reality. Seven tips for leveraging functionalities are highlighted.

Ramkumar V, L&T Technology Services
08/08/2018
AR and VR: A safe landing on the plant floor

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) empowers manufacturers to gain insights into their equipment health and product models. This leads to operation and process efficiencies, which in turn enhances product quality and reduces time to market.

These technologies leverage sensors, cameras, smart devices and wearables, and other Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) tools. Training becomes easier, as workers are given a visual, hands-on experience in front of the machines, and this leads to improved assembly, and maintenance.

In aircraft assembly, for example, the AR device displays an image of the components, overlaid with renderings of specifications, bolts, cables, parts, and part numbers, facilitating engineers to accurately assemble complex heavy machinery by simply following the instructions. In an aircraft manufacturing training facility, this technology enabled engineers to increase productivity by 30%.

VR-simulated training programs help new employees learn complex processes while immersing themselves in an animated 3-D replica of the actual facility. The method has yielded higher retention rates compared to lecture-style or reading-based methods, particularly for the next generations of w orkers more used to the VR environment. In a petroleum facility, training helicopter pilots to safely land on offshore oil platforms using VR simulation helped the company save $2 million in logistics. Its employees also retained 75% of the information disseminated during the training program.

AR and VR can disrupt manufacturing training methods, and with manufacturing plants projected to lose 2.7 million skilled workers due to retirement in the next decade, they need to leverage AR and VR to keep their factories running. 

Plant applications 

Manufacturers can leverage AR/VR functionalities for multiple operational activities on the factory floor, including:

1. Design improvement

AR and VR can smooth the transition toward individualized and customer-centric production by catalyzing the product design improvement process. Coupled with a digital twin and IIoT, AR’s overlaying features and VR’s auditive, visual, and haptic simulation capabilities enable product design engineers to generate, study, and test virtual prototypes. 

The automotive industry is investing significant money in AR and VR to improve product design. VR-equipped 3-D visualization software helps OEMs reduce prototyping cost as well as enhance the design review process and its feedback loop. This, in turn, shortens the product lifecycle (PLC) and accelerates time to market. 

2. Complex assembly

Besides aircraft assembly training, engineers can streamline customized product development in smart plants using AR-powered worker guidance systems. The system blends artificial intelligence and other detection components with high-lumen industrial strength projectors and torque guns to ensure that products are built without errors the very first time. 

In the aeronautics sector, AR-equipped smart glasses enable technicians to precisely assemble and install cabins in commercial aircraft. The head-mounted gear has a camera that can scan barcodes that technicians use to read cabin information and see the design layout, which displays the marks as “augmented” items. The marking process allows the technician to confirm the mark location and validate it with millimeter-precise positioning. 

3. Quality assurance

AR plays an integral role in enabling the quality control of manufactured or assembled products. The automotive and aerospace industries have already begun leveraging AR-equipped glasses and tablets to examine the quality of parts sent by third-party suppliers and placement of different components in the assembly line.

The worker guidance systems used to assemble components also are utilized to assure product quality. The AR-facilitated tool combines industrial cameras with high-powered projectors to display essential information directly onto the work surface. The resulting digital canvas allows technicians to verify and validate assembly sequence and manufacture parts. Some OEMs and Tier 1 automotive manufacturing firms that have adopted Light Guide Systems over traditional work instructions have reported a 90% reduction in errors and 40-50% reduction in cycle time. 

4. Maintenance

Maintenance teams leverage AR-overlaid displays to view the machine’s condition, facilitating problem detection ahead of solving it in person. In one instance, an AR-headset used a technology to guide a technician with instructions on the line of sight. This helped improve his performance in wiring a wind turbine’s control box by 34%.

A recent innovation in AR-based maintenance software further allows technicians to track the position of the overlay so that content does not get dislodged when the user moves the tablet around. 

5. Expert support 

Remote assistance using AR and VR solutions can enable people in different geographies to connect and troubleshoot problems together. A technical issue in the U.S. can be resolved by collaborating with an engineer in China using IoT- and voice-enabled AR glasses, thus cutting travel costs and expediting the problem-solving process. 

Additionally, AR with visual and haptic capabilities can be used to remotely operate tasks through robots in an uninhabitable environment. Such teleoperation systems enable engineers to immerse themselves in a VR interface and then control robotic motions, and on-site welding or parts assembly.

6. Safety

Remote monitoring of hazardous conditions is accomplished using VR, and maintenance protocols are deployed through AR-powered tablets. This enables engineers to securely enforce safety standards. A leading coal mining firm deployed an AR system for maintenance planning for long wall equipment, belt conveyors, and loaders. The system used 3-D-simulated images to virtually recreate mining conditions and scenarios such as underground rock falls. It immerses users in the experience, thereby facilitating improved performance, health, and compliance to safety standards. 

In another case, an automotive OEM leveraged virtual manufacturing technology to design a safe and efficient work environment. The immersive VR used, along with 3D printing and full-body motion capture, enabled reduction of employee injuries by 70% and ergonomic issues by 90%.  

7. Warehouse operations

Smart warehousing has disrupted distribution logistics practices by enhancing the precision and speed of fulfilling orders. It leverages AR to more efficiently tag, code, and manage freights. As sensors are now priced below $10 per unit and cellular ubiquity is expanding IoT opportunities, the freight handling process has become more systematic, allowing for accurate picking and packaging. Reports suggest that warehouse workers using AR have improved their picking accuracy by up to 300% and accelerated their performance by 30%.

Future visions

AR and VR are being converged with the Internet of Things (IoT) into mixed reality (MR) to provide a more seamless and realistic experience. R&D is also underway to miniaturize AR, VR, and MR devices, develop powering schemes for its extended use before the next recharge, and enhancing the flexibility of components to enable their use in diverse environments like low or high temperatures and under oceans. 

With 5G mobile networks another two years away, organizations can expect to very soon reduce their mobile connectivity costs incurred to mass deploy AR and VR. A high-definition 360-degree VR experience with HMDs streams at a speed of 80 to 100Mbit/s, which means that unprecedented amounts of data are required to run AR and VR applications at high speed across a network. While devices currently cost up to $3,000, the active innovation ecosystem will eventually help reduce device and technology costs, leading to mass adoption. 

Ramkumar V is group head, Engineering Application & Testing Solutions for L&T Technology Services.

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