Using AR in Manufacturing & Enterprise

Last year’s ARVR INNOVATE conference, which was held online on May 7th, featured an AREA hosted panel discussion on the topic of AR in Manufacturing & Enterprise, which explored current use-cases, benefits of using AR and the challenges for deployment.The panel represented a great cross-section of interests from software to hardware and client. On the client side, Gary Smith, Head of Asset Information at Welsh Water is someone who has been to the vanguard in championing the use of AR in large utility contexts. Welsh Water delivers daily some 850m litres of clean water into some 1.4 million homes and with 3.5k employees is Wales’ fourth largest company. In addition to provision of water, the utility has several other divisions and holds a significant land holding – it welcomes over 1 million visitors to their outdoor leisure locations. Paul Sweeney – was COO of DAQRI which was sold recently to a strategic buyer. Currently he is working on commercialisation on AR & VR as a consultant with several companies. John Mathieu, is the Managing Director Europe for Taqtile which is Seattle Headquartered. He has been working in AR since mid-2015 when Microsoft invited them to provide software for Hololens pre-launch. Holomap was their first product. This in turn led to Manifest, now Manifest 2.0 which is a knowledge capture and share solution. The panel was hosted by Mark Sage – Executive Director of AREA ( Augmented Reality Enterprise Alliance ). The AREA is a not-for-profit alliance working to accelerate adoption of AR in enterprises.


Current Use Cases for AR

For Welsh Water the capacity for AR to allow remote assistance to operators in often hostile environment is a key use case. Additionally the company does use AR in induction contexts and and schematic representation. Welsh Water have also been working on AR in the context of GPS guidance and point of interest mapping to find hidden assets.

John Mathieu, from Taqtile, agreed that the emphasis today is on remote assistance and guided instruction space. For now that is the killer app. The future depends on device capability. This was echoed by Gary Smith who said that AR had a particular attraction for knowledge transmission in the context of retiring workforces. It was his opinion that today’s younger workforce, raised in a digital era, were not exactly thrilled with wading through a 200 page manual. And for those charged with updating the manual, AR offered a much more user friendly way to transmit this knowledge. 

The Covid19 crisis has certainly led to more emphasis on company resilience and business continuity, something which Gary Smith said had led to an increased use of AR for remote assistance, where employees were not permitted to travel together to remote sites in hostile locations. A lot of innovation will come through as a consequence but the exact nature of this would be difficult too say.

Considering AR’s tangible benefits, Gary Smith pointed to the repeatability of task, and potential for reduction of error-making as being key for them. Now typically there are single operators on a site using either tablets or wearable devices. He did acknowledge that there are also some downsides to working in this way, key among them being the lack of collaboration which has led to a temporary pause on some innovation projects. 

Paul Sweeney also saw that as he put it ‘remote assistance was the low-hanging fruit in early days’. An interesting and topical example he gave was of a multinational paper manufacturer who had successfully deployed AR for remote assistance and diagnosis at several internationally dispersed toilet paper plants who were facing massive capacity building challenges. 

Paul also introduced into the discussion the role that AR technologies can play in data visualisation. For DAQRI this became a key use case as their product line evolved. He cited the ability to drop ‘virtual tags’ alongside plant and machinery which provide a three dimensional instructional benefit. Operatives using wearable devices at a manufacturing plant can see ‘green’ or ‘amber’ tags floating above critical points in the manufacturing line to indicate the health of the process. 

What are the benefits of AR? 

The discussion then moved on to the benefits derived from AR. Gary Smith pointed to the repeatability of task and reduction of errors as being key benefits. Welsh Water have seen that AR as a technology has been a great leveller in a context where there may be wide variations in operator experience, and dispersed geography. 

Intangible benefits are more difficult to identify. AR has given users enthusiasm to do more and Gary indicated that his team were, as a consequence being asked to come forward with more initiatives. His team have picked up many awards, and as a consequence got more senior board buy-in and investment. They now have a three year commitment for the future to progress some projects. 

John Mathieu cited among the often overlooked intangibles as job satisfaction. He gave as a case-study example that of King County Waste Water Treatment systems. Not a heavy technology industry, with AR solutions they now have agency – they can select what are the best practices. At operative level they have had Industry 4.0 message widely communicated to them; now they are in charge, and can embrace a technology that very few people are currently using. They can build something significant, empowering less skilled workers, and allow experienced staff – Jedi Masters as John termed them – to transmit their experience – to capture best-practice in new innovative ways rather than just the update to the manual. In John’s estimation 99% of the time people are impressed when exposed to the technology so education is still key.

Paul Sweeney concurs that when you excite the workers it convinces people that it’s more than a new tech to be tinkered with, even if the decision makers can still be sceptical. The existential challenge remains to get higher level buy-in and, using a rugby analogy, he said that the hard yards had still to be won.

Paul also pointed to an interesting intangible benefit being the capability of AR users to automatically record the entire process of use, thereby negating the need for time-consuming post-maintenance report writing. He cited one client who saved a couple of days of tedious report write-up as a consequence.. 

Mark Sage referenced several AREA clients who have documented huge productivity gains through the use of AR, among them Lockheed Martin who report a 99% saving on a particular task, and Newport New Shipbuilding who posted a 96% saving on an inspection sign-off process reducing it from 36 hours to just 90 minutes.

Challenges of deploying AR.

The panel concluded with a discussion on the challenges of deploying AR. The first point that the panel noted was that AR diffusion should be seen as a change management process rather than a technology project. John Mathieu indicated a lack of power as a software developer they have over the hardware — the latest iterations are impressive but there is still a niggling sense of how it’s seen as magic and not real when applied to the workplace. The sales cycle still long but he was hopeful that post-Covid19 there would be a higher adoption rate.

Hardware Devices

On the point of hardware devices Paul Sweeney made the point that the context of adoption needed to be seen. In the aerospace sector employees have been using HUD devices for more than two decades.

As an end user Welsh Water have have a host of new challenges arising with Covid centering on security. Safety considerations, legitimate security ( information ) arose and they are now starting to deal with high risk data capture and IP. Other areas that will require addressing include user generated content and copyright. GDPR regulations have caused considerable probs in public areas where filming may be required.

John Mathieu pointed to the challenge of working in multiple delivery platforms IOS & Windows as being challenging. Connectivity was still a challenge but 5G may be a help in this area. The ability to slice a network into parts that are secure will be a game-changer he claimed with MEC ( Multi-Access Edge Computing) compliance coming on stream. Manufacturers are becoming more aware of the advantages of creating digital twins of their plants but do have security concerns. 

A question from the audience on IOT and AI in relation to AR was posed. Paul Sweeney felt that IOT was more commonly discussed in his experience, particularly data visualisation, largely as a consequence of the fact that often machines come sensorized, so it is capable to measure their performance. With sensors costing as little as €50 there was likely to be further growth in the deployment of AR in IOT contexts.

John Mathieu said they are learning from companies such as Amazon who have AI learnings. These learnings could be incorporated for predictive maintenance and can even also feed into job assignments and to check efficiency — to assign the best person for a particular job.

Gary Smith said Welsh Water are using predictive analytics – they have a well developed IOT based telemetry estate with all elements working together. Today the company is moving beyond routine maintenance and the deployment of AR in combination with run to failure or just in time maintenance process coming more to the fore as a consequence.

HERE is the link to the panel discussion.


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