Can Google Glass revolutionise manufacturing?

With Google Glass set to change the way people connect, James Pozzi explores how the device is impacting on manufacturing processes across the globe.

One of the best questions I’ve been asked in recent times occurred at a conference I attended some months ago. When discussing the Internet of Things (IoT), attention soon turned to Google Glass. Proclaimed to revolutionise everything from engineering to healthcare, one erudite delegate asked the simple question: how it would actually better everyday lives?

This remark got me thinking from a different perspective. With my manufacturing journalist hat on, I pondered how this could help industry in the long-term. How would the engineers and factories of the future be able to use Glass to enhance their working capabilities and operations? If the last year is anything to go by, the signs look promising.

Developed by Google’s Team X, the sub-group which worked on its driverless car project, Glass has, until recent times, found itself viewed in a similar fashion to a device from the distant future; like a laser gun or a flying car. But unlike those aforementioned things, Glass is very much a reality.

“Smart glasses with augmented reality and head-mounted cameras can increase the efficiency of technicians, engineers and other workers in field service, maintenance, healthcare and manufacturing roles,” said Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner. Of those sectors mentioned, manufacturing has been receptive, employing smart glasses for a multitude of purposes.

Industry pioneers

General Motors (GM) adopted the technology over two of its Michigan sites to train engineers in its factories, results which the US car giant said proved instantaneous. “Right out of the box we found Google Glass to help in training,” said Tony Howell, global and GM North America non-portfolio project manager. “Instead of having people sitting in a conference room learning a process, they can do it all there on the line.”

GE Aviation began trialling Glass at its Cincinnati training facility last year to aid repair of its GE90 jet engines. The agility of the device proved particularly useful to the company, according to GE Aviation spokeswoman Stephanie Arvin. “The ability to receive hands-free information allows technicians to use it in situations where they might not be able to hold a mobile device,” she said.

Despite being an early adopter and something pioneer, GE Aviation has only used it in a limited fashion. Barry Lynch, GE Intelligent Platform’s global marketing director for automation hardware, said in November 2013 that while he felt Glass would become a common sight on the manufacturing shop floor of tomorrow, the device was not yet industry ready.

“Is it ready for the shop floor today? Well, no, there are a few issues. Its not industrialized enough, needs a stronger frame and safety glass lenses,” he said in a GE IP blog. “The battery gets very hot, but again this is a prototype. The main issue is that it uses its own Google voice recognition to take actions, and in a noisy shop floor environment that’s going to be one of the biggest issues to solve.”

But while attention has focused on the physical device, the number of industry friendly apps becoming available has been significant and is only set to increase over time. One of the most prominent apps developed so far is the free to use MTConnect. Pioneered by the Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies, the application aids factory staff for training purposes while also allowing them to receive and share operating data with colleagues. Given the onus on connected future factories, Glass could prove one of the great innovations of in the era of IoT. Its flexibility is also extending to other facets of industry, including the oil & gas sector.

Check out the video of Glass being used in an industrial setting and a couple of reviews available here.

Manufacturers: spoilt for choice?

Given the sheer size and scale of IoT, even the might of Google won’t be able to corner an entire market on its own. Naturally, other entrants into the market will present themselves. Chinese computing firm Lenovo announced the release of its rival product in July. Its selling point? Increased battery life, given additional firepower by a separate power device around the wearer’s neck. Given its openness to the concept of wearable devices, it could be a conceivable reality that manufacturers using will have their pick of providers offering factory floor tools before too long.

Despite being some way off entering our everyday lives, with a consumer release earmarked before the end of this year, the manufacturing landscape looks well positioned to benefit from the innovation of wearable technologies. Last November, Gartner predicted that smartglasses could save the field service industry as much as $1bn annually by 2017. Such figures will naturally prove alluring to businesses continually looking to gain a competitive advantage both financially and in terms of shop floor efficiency.

But implementing Glass and other smartglass devices into becoming permanent fixtures of manufacturing operations will prove a long term evolution, despite its increasingly inevitability. In the same report from last November, Gartner stated just 1% of companies are using smart glasses at present, with the figure predicted to rise to 10% by 2017. While this is a solid increase, it could be a while yet before Google Glass and similar wearable devices become as essential to the factory floor as the safety boot and CNC machine.