VR and Augmented Reality: A new frontier for manufacturing training?

One of the most promising and hyped digital technologies of recent years has been virtual reality (VR) as well as its cousin augmented reality (AR).

VR and AR demos have wowed attendees at the Smart Factory Expo. Image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
VR and AR demos have wowed attendees at the Smart Factory Expo. Image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Virtual reality headsets have flooded the market in the past 18 months, however their applications are still only just beginning to be explored.

For manufacturers as well, the technology is only just starting to be noticed, and at Smart Factory Expo, several of the exhibitors have shown off some of their ideas for how it could be used in this setting.

The primary use case for VR in the industry which has been floated, is using it to help train employees on how to use certain critical systems.

For enterprise business solutions company HSO, they have been demonstrating the idea of using VR to create an immersive ‘digital twin’ of a factory, or a piece of machinery.

There, an employee can learn to use a complex piece of machinery in an environment that closely resembles real life. Of course, mistakes in this virtual environment cannot endanger the employee, or cause damage to the company’s equipment.

“So if someone is going to maintain a machine, then it’s much better – if they don’t know how to do that – that they learn how to do it with a VR digital twin. […] You can use the digital twin for training scenarios and obviously to minimise the down time of your real assets,” says Robin Coles, the product and technology lead at HSO.

The other similar technology is augmented reality, wherein, as the name suggests, reality is augmented by digital overlays which interact with the wearer and the physical environment into which they are projected.

Augmented reality also could be used for training, however may also be useful for full-scale visualisations of products, machines, or parts without needing for them to be physically built.

Industrial automation company Iconics demonstrated Microsoft’s Hololens AR device to the Expo attendees, looking for input on possible use cases for the device, building on its own ideas.

Nonetheless, the current version of the Hololens is both expensive, and limited by a narrow field of view, meaning that it would need to be both improved, and made more cost effective before it can be of use to most manufacturers.

“The obvious problem with the Hololens is field of view. In order for companies to justify this kind of outlay, the price needs to come down. I think a £3,000 dev kit is a bit steep for the kind of uses people are talking about,” said Scott Nicholls, a support engineer from Iconics.