In a series of posts, I will put the spotlight on technologies that eventually will change how we manufacture and deliver products and services. My objective is to demystify the “fourth industrial revolution”— Industry 4.0 — by looking at the specific technologies it concerns. First out is Augmented Reality.
What is Augmented Reality?
The term “Augmented Reality” (AR) was coined at Boeing a quarter of a century ago. Today, the easiest way to explain AR is to refer to Pokémon GO. Niantic’s mobile game was released in July 2016 and has been downloaded more than 500 million times (as of September 2016). If you do not play it yourself, I bet you know a kid that does. Pokémon GO takes advantage of AR to create a game experience where virtual characters (Pokémon) are layered onto a map of the physical world. Players walk around in the real world in search of Pokémon. When a Pokémon appears, the game can shift from the map to showing the real-life environment (using the camera of the mobile device) and show the virtual Pokémon as part of the real world (Fig. 1). That is Augmented Reality. Pokémon GO is not the first AR game, but it represents a breakthrough of AR technology.
Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality
Augmented Reality is sometimes confused with Virtual Reality (VR). Whereas, AR layers virtual enhancements upon existing reality, VR is a virtual simulation or recreation of a real life environment. Milgam’s  reality-virtuality continuum (Fig. 2) is one way to show the difference. Another way is to illustrate with famous movies: if AR is “The Terminator”, then VR is “The Matrix” .
Both AR and VR have significant potential to influence manufacturing industries , but the former more so as it is more connected to the physical world. The AR technology can be delivered through smart eye wear (e.g. Google Glass), mobile computers (e.g. smartphones and tablets), or through projector technologies. In any case, AR requires a proper 3D CAD model of the product and the supporting AR software. It is not easy.
Augmented Reality applications in manufacturing
Although AR technologies have been around since the 1990s, the industrial use remains limited and scattered. Most industrial AR applications are at the R&D or piloting stage. It is easy to get media attention if you apply Google Glasses in some corner of your factory, but that does not transform your business. However, with the rapid growth in mobile devices and developments in telecommunications, data storage, and wireless data transfer, AR now stands a much better chance to succeed. My hypothesis:
In 10 years from now—when the Pokémon generation enters factories for work— we can expect a surge in industrial Augmented Reality applications.
There are indeed a few companies that have been serious in their AR investments, including Boeing, Airbus, Bosch, and few more. Some good examples are highlighted below. AR can be used for many purposes in manufacturing companies, but its potential is perhaps greatest within these four areas:
- Error prevention
Operations: Boeing tests Google Glass for aircraft wire harness
As a pioneer in AR technologies, we would expect Boeing to be far ahead when it comes to applications. But, also in Boeing it seems that real AR applications are lingering. A Boeing report from 2014 concluded, “AR tracking and display technologies are not sufficiently robust for mainline manufacturing production environments” . One recent reported example from Boeing is the use of Google Glass to assist aircraft wire harnessing . We can imagine the complexity of pulling and connecting all the cables that go into an airplane. Whereas the operator previously looked at a massive PDF document with harnessing schemes at a computer screen, she now has the virtual instructions immediately in sight (Fig. 3). An AR wire harness pilot in Boeing report that the use of Google Glass cut production times by one-fourth and cut error rates by half.
Maintenance: Bosch’ Common Augmented Reality Platform
Trying to stay at the forefront of AR technology development in the automobile industry, Bosch has been cooperating with AR startup Reflekt since 2013. Bosch offers its Common Augmented Reality Platform (CAP), which can find many applications including maintenance . The technology is an app-based augmented reality not that far away from how Pokémon GO works. It is not hard to imagne how car maintenenace can be conduced by anyone with a DIY (do-it-yourself) AR application (Fig. 4). However, also this technology still looks better on PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos than in reality.
Error Prevention: Airbus’ Smart Augmented Reality Tool (SART)
Since 2011, Airbus has used AR for several purposes in their manufacturing facilities under the label Smart Augmented Reality Tool (SART) . This tablet technology has many application areas and are used on all aircraft programs today. Almost 1000 Airbus employees use SART every day. One example is from the inspection of bracket installation in fuselage assembly where a tablet with a camera superimposes a virtual image of the as-designed assembly over the actual as-built product (Fig. 5). The AR technology quickly enables the operator to detect any deviation. According to Airbus, the introduction of AR has reduced inspection times in some cases from 3 weeks to 3 days.
Training: UNIDOs AR diesel engine maintenance training tool
When it comes to training operators, both VR and AR technologies have great potential. Virtual Reality is already widely used for training. Typical examples are simulator training for aircraft pilots, military operations, advanced surgery, maritime operations, and so on. In the manufacturing sector, Audi, for example, uses VR to train operators in assembly tasks before doing real shop-floor assembly. AR on the other hand has found far less application so far. There is a lot of talk about the potential benefits, but few systems are in use. One simple classroom example is a solution developed by EON Reality for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), where students of Volvo Selam Vocational Training Center in Ethiopia learn the basics of diesel engine maintenance (Fig. 6) . Admittedly, this application is really closer to VR than to AR, as it only uses a printed sketch of an engine as reference point in the real world.
AR in manufacturing? Great potential, but a long way to go
The few example above show some of the potential of AR in manufacturing. However, there is a long way to go before AR becomes mainstream. For now, most companies need to put AR on the awareness radar and wait until the technology matures.
What is your opinion? Do you know other AR applications already in use by industrial firms? Please share your insights below.
- Milgram, P; Takemura; A. Utsumi; Kishino, F. (1994). “Augmented Reality: A class of displays on the reality-virtuality continuum” Proceedings of Telemanipulator and Telepresence Technologies. pp. 2351–34
- Economist (2016) The difference between virtual and augmented reality, Online at http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2016/04/economist-explains-8, 14.4.2016
- Ong, S. K.; Nee, A.Y.C (2013). Virtual and augmented reality applications in manufacturing. Springer Science & Business Media.
- Davies P.; Lee, D. (2014) Agmented Reality in Manufacturing at the Boeing Company: Lessons Learned and Future Direction, Boeing, Online at http://thearea.org/download/published/case_studies/Augmented_Reality_at_Boeing_-_Lessons_Learned.pdf
- Sacco, A. (2016) Google Glass takes flight at Boeing, CIO, 13 July 2016, Online at http://www.cio.com/article/3095132/wearable-technology/google-glass-takes-flight-at-boeing.html
- Bosch Common Augmented Reality Platform CAP, Online at http://oe.bosch-automotive.com/en/bosch-automotive-aftermarket
- Smart Augmented Reality Tool (SART). Online at http://www.testia.com/products/smw-smart-mobile-worker/sart/
- Lockwood, D. (2015) LKDF Interact: Implementation at the Volvo Selam Vocational Training Centre – An evaluation report, Online at http://www.naledi3d.com/Archives/Articles/N3d_LKDF%20Interact%20Evaluation%20report_Feb%202015_Final.pdf