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AR in manufacturing: virtually impossible to ignore

Augmented reality is one of the most exciting and impactful experiences making its way into today’s manufacturing industries. Because AR applications work on a multitude of devices tailored to almost any environmental situation, AR is no longer a restricted technology, or a tradeshow gimmick. In fact, even the Android or iOS devices we use in our daily lives can provide the operational gateway to better knowledge retention, smarter decision making, and improved safety. Tyron Vardy from ABB explains what needs to be done to transition industrial AR from an interesting experiment, to an everyday essential.

Seeing is believing

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By Tyron VardyLinkedIn
Global Digital Portfolio Leader
Process Industries

About the author
Tyron Vardy joined ABB in 2022 as Global Digital Portfolio Leader for Process Industries. Prior to this he was the Chief Product Officer for a global retail energy company, providing cloud-native solutions to gas and electricity suppliers around the world. Before this he worked for over 20 years in the process industry, creating, developing and deploying process safety and operational integrity solutions for Honeywell’s Connected Plant and Advanced Solutions division.

Unlike virtual reality, that creates a fully virtual environment around its users, augmented reality creates an illusion, as if virtual objects coexisted within the physical world. Simply put, AR is a means to present operational information in a completely new way – enveloped in a person’s view of their real environment and acting as the perfect “digital assistant”. AR makes that digital assistance interactive, more practical to absorb, understand and act upon, because it relies on our innate mental capacity to process a huge variety of information from the physical world.

Just a few years back, the best examples of AR could be found in gaming development. More recently sports like soccer, cricket and motor racing use AR to overlay statistics, game time and player information, speed etc. to augment the physical world with data that layers on additional knowledge to what we would normally see – and all in real-time.

And the adoption trend continues, as more and more people are now using AR technology via mobile apps in their every-day life – from education and fitness to shopping and real estate. Unlike the mass market, manufacturers typically need some time before they are ready to dive into disruptive technology. This is not because they dismiss the possibilities, but because workforce transformations can be hard, and industrial digital transformations can be even harder if not approached in the correct way. To be able to present information in a new way via AR, it first needs to be made relevant, accurate and easy to consume for the manufacturing workforce. It needs to operate in a secure environment as well as being suitable for demanding industrial conditions, from extreme temperatures, noise or flying sparks, to helmets, gloves and other personal protective equipment that may interfere with voice or physical gesture commands. But most importantly it needs to deliver value. Industrial facilities shouldn’t look at how to embed AR technology into their facilities, instead they should start from the premise of ‘how can we make things faster, smarter, and safer’, and look to advancements in AR to support this – getting back to the dog wagging its own tail – allowing technology to support the outcome, not determine it.

The rate of innovation

Despite some challenges, the first industrial AR applications on mobile devices are increasingly shifting to hands-free wearables such as head-mounted displays or smart glasses. AR headsets are projected to grow in unit sales from 170,000 in 2019 to 3.9 million in 2024, and there are no indications this adoption will slow. The first consumer AR headset with eye tracking is expected later this year. Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) will become available, in an incremental fashion, over the next few years. It will increase bandwidth by an order of magnitude over 4G, further facilitating the adoption of high-definition (HD) video-streaming and AR. Ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC) will reduce the achievable latency and enhance the reliability of communication. 5G is not just a faster 4G, it is a game changer.

Experienced manufacturing leaders who have previously scaled up advanced technologies from a proof of concept to proof of value and company-wide adoption know the fundamentals. The best chances to succeed are by providing much better alternatives for carrying out the tasks that employees are already familiar with, by relieving them from the ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ and making them eager to switch to more value-adding activities – all in a standardized way to facilitate knowledge retention and continuous improvement cycles.

Remote, safe, consistent, and on time

How can manufacturers improve productivity, safety, compliance, and training of their workforce with the help of readily accessible AR technologies which are also engaging to use? What kind of immersive solutions are already there or being developed to provide unique connected experiences and tangible outcomes for manufacturers? What can manufacturers do differently – and better – with AR?

Sports like soccer, cricket and motor racing use AR to overlay statistics, game time and player information, speed etc, and all in real-time.

Case study 1: Carrying out work remotely from virtually any location

By creating digital constructs directly in a person’s field of vision, AR makes it possible to organize, structure and perform many tasks remotely, greatly improving productivity, consistency, and mobilization costs.

ABB recently deployed its augmented reality solution, encompassing audio, video, document sharing and live annotations for remote factory acceptance testing (FAT) during tight COVID-19 travel restrictions. The cycloconverter upgrade at a steel mill in Spain was successfully completed, without ABB engineering visits to site.

Conducting FATs remotely is becoming more common. AR makes them completely different from ‘in-person’ FATs but is proving to be effective in many projects. We also see very clearly how valuable it is to have personal contact with clients on site – whether discussing ideas at the coffee machine or testing the solution in the field – remotely

Case study 2: Scanning equipment that would be difficult or impossible to reach

Advanced tracking software is able to create a virtual 3D, fully immersive, digital twin of the equipment. Complemented with live data and analytics, drive faster conclusions leading to smarter, safer and more cost-effective decision making.

ABB is making this possible today in mining for critical systems such as gearless mill drives (GMD). Each component within the GMD has a 3D model with information such as parts identification for re-ordering, operations and maintenance documentation, precise location of instrumentation, P&ID electrical schematics all delivered in a safe and connected digital reality, with in-the-moment high-definition overlays, without the need to get hands on with the live equipment. 3D modeling and AR overlays not only provide faster information to the operators and field engineers, but promote higher levels of analysis, problem detection, and decision making, all whilst keeping operations and production as safe as possible.

AR solutions can reduce/eliminate time-intensive efforts that involve running through, sorting and categorizing data in various formats, jumping in and out of various systems and coordinating with others when performing tasks in the control room

Case study 3: Reducing the burden on operations and maintenance personnel

AR solutions can reduce or even eliminate time-intensive efforts that involve running through, sorting and categorizing data in various formats, jumping in and out of various systems and coordinating with others when performing tasks in the control room, integrated operations centers, or in the field.

ABB’s AR solutions integrate multiple data sources and collaboration tools into the same augmented environment, and with our developments in mixed reality as well, teams can collaborate much more effectively, regardless of their location – getting ‘virtually’ hands on. Our developments with mixed reality essentially allow interactive holograms to be placed within the physical world, ones that show real-time control system information, temperatures, rotation speeds etc., simply by looking at them through the connected devices.

In time, AR-based approaches will be exploited to deliver value in almost all systems and devices. But full potential will be reached when total integration with site, process, and client data is achieved, and this reality isn’t as far off as you would think. ABB is leveraging developments in AR/VR and XR solutions across its manufacturing facilities as we continue to infuse our 130 years of industry knowledge with advanced digital technology to drive our next generation of manufacturing excellence and connected workforce solutions.

AR needs to be made relevant, accurate and easy to consume for the manufacturing workforce.

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