Manufacturers set the pace in the Augmented Reality race

Augmented Reality has gone from a future business investment into an extremely powerful tool for helping industry achieve remote access, skill retention and operational productivity. Paul Haimes, Vice President of Field Engineering at PTC, explains how Covid-19 has accelerated demand for digital technologies by more than five years and why demand is here to stay.

The VentilatorChallengeUK will go down as one of the country’s greatest modern manufacturing achievements. Faced with spiralling hospital admissions due to Covid-19 and with an increasing lack of life-saving equipment for patients, the Government put out an urgent call for companies to work together to make more ventilators.

The response was stunning, with sub-contractors, automotive OEMs, aerospace specialists and Formula 1 teams pivoting to address the challenge by creating additional supply chain capacity for industry experts Smiths Group and Penlon. Nearly 14,000 Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator Systems were created as part of this action, doubling the UK’s capacity and helping to save many lives.

What not many people realise is that Augmented Reality (AR) was fundamental to making the entire challenge happen. With the pandemic ripping through society, bringing together lots of different manufacturing companies and their staff was viewed as a major risk and too dangerous for increasing the spread. A different solution was required.

“In a nutshell, we created tens of virtual Ventilator engineers that we could parachute into new manufacturing lines,” explained Paul Haimes, Vice President of Field Engineering at Industrial Internet of Things specialist PTC.

“We were part of an emergency phone call on a Friday night and by Saturday morning we had a person on-site training staff in our AR tools on how to document crucial assembly processes involved in production.”

He continued: “Vuforia® Expert Capture Technology and Microsoft’s HoloLens glasses were used to create a virtual guide hosted in the cloud and then accessed by engineers in a number of factories across the UK. Whilst skilled professionals, these people had never built a ventilator in their lives, so what we did was transfer the knowledge and experience of Smiths personnel to them via AR.

“Protecting workers and reducing the spread was at the heart of the project and this is where the power of Augmented Reality removed a lot of the dangers.”

Whilst saving lives was paramount to the challenge, what it also did was create the largest and best use case for this form of digital technology in Europe.

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Industrial 4.0 , Augmented reality concept. Hand holding tablet with AR service , maintenance application and calling technician for check destroy part of smart machine in smart factory background

The figures are impressive. It takes 24 hours to build 1 Smiths paraPAC ventilator and this was condensed into 3 hours of video capture. From there, 23 standard operating procedures and 19 test procedures were converted from PDFs into digital content in just five hours, with seven leads from Smiths and GKN trained in how to maximise the technology.

Seeing AR in action with the VentilatorChallengeUK has seen a rise in orders for PTC, with a major pharma company and Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Group two of the most high-profile adopters.

The latter, a world leading manufacturer of peristaltic pumps and associated fluid path technologies, has selected Vuforia® Expert Capture, Vuforia Studio and Vuforia Chalk to support the transfer of production and assembly skills to help drive the opening of new manufacturing facilities within the group.

It will also use these solutions to provide remote technical support and enable a virtual approach to sales and marketing.

Paul, who has been with PTC for over 20 years, continued: “Covid-19 has undoubtedly accelerated the digital transformation by five years, with the need for remote access and communication forcing the hand of even the most hard-to-convince businesses.

“Manufacturers have seen how it can work and now have a taste for exploring other different use cases that could unlock productivity, design and predictive maintenance improvements. Then we have the big conversation about skills.”

Protecting skills for the future

Industry has been searching for some time for an answer to an ageing workforce and the worrying scenario of traditional engineering skills being potentially lost forever.

Asking people to work into their 70s isn’t a long-term, sustainable solution, neither is placing the burden on young people to learn faster than they normally would.

There is a solution, and it comes in the form of Augmented Reality. Just like companies did in the VentilatorChallengeUK, AR can be used to record skills as engineers are performing them, saving them in the Cloud for generations to come – almost like a virtual technical library.

Importantly, these instructions can be delivered at the point of use, which has been proven to speed up learning.

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“Using Augmented Reality in this way is increasing rapidly and from sectors you wouldn’t automatically think of being early adopters,” pointed out Paul.

“The steel industry is a perfect example. Working with the Materials Processing Institute, we are trialling how we can use AR to capture some of the traditional skills that could be lost if the knowledge of older workers is not retained before they retire.

“This will be achieved by using our Vuforia® software, with Vuforia Expert Capture allowing operators and technicians to record their daily tasks in step-by-step instructions, in situ of when and where they do their work.

“This will be uploaded to ‘the Cloud’, which can then be accessed by new starters or people switching roles, using HoloLens or RealWear to get a real hands-on experience, or other devices such as mobiles or tablets.”

So that’s retention of skills, but what about attracting and retaining employees?

“Using visuals and AR is definitely attractive in a manufacturing industry universe,” pointed out Bertrand Felix from Volvo Group.

“It certainly helps to recruit younger generations, as well as creating new jobs along the value chain who can generate the new digital visual instructions. Many can be created by experienced employees and, in that way, their knowledge is passed on carefully to the younger generation.”

He went on to add: “In terms of branding we have been surprised to see that younger people who send applications are actively mentioning articles or factory visits where they have read about or seen the AR tools in action. It certainly reinforces the position of the Volvo Group as a cutting-edge technology company.”

The truck manufacturer also employs Augmented Reality to make training more efficient for its operatives.

Engine quality control and assurance in its manufacturing plants are subject to several quality checks, a task reserved for Volvo’s most experienced technicians. In one plant, each engine requires 40 checks, with 200 possible quality assurance variants, which must be completed at the station in only eight minutes.

Training new operators takes five weeks, but with the AR technology, the training of quality operators will be reduced to less than two weeks.

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Removing the barriers to entry

Whilst digital adoption is certainly gathering pace, a number of perceived barriers still remain in place, especially when looking to convince SMEs to embark on the journey.

The anticipated cost and a lack of clarity on tangible business benefits remain top of the list and need to be addressed quickly to ensure every company – regardless of size or turnover – can benefit from the digital thread.

“Perceptions can change, we’ve seen this with how people view security of their data. The adoption of the Cloud has proven how secure business critical data is and given management teams one less obstacle to overcome when making the decision to adopt IIoT platforms, remote access or AR,” said Paul.

“Then you have the growth in SaaS (Software as a Service). A decade ago, people would struggle to believe you could just tap into capabilities and technology when you need them, as opposed to having it plugged in on site. Fast forward and the flexibility it delivers presents a massive financial and operational benefit.”

He concluded: “Digital technologies is no longer the preserve of the big boys, it’s there for every firm to enjoy, they just need the belief and their own individual business case.”


Images supplied by PTC.