Augmented and Virtual Reality

Perceived value of AR/VR in the Manufacturing Industry

2 August 2017
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Reading time: 4 minutes

As you have read in the first post of this series, companies in the Swiss manufacturing industry see a variety of possibilities to use augmented (AR), virtual (VR) and mixed reality (MR) technologies in their business. But why? I interviewed several representatives of different companies in the Swiss manufacturing industry to find out what benefits they hope to gain from using those technologies.

Note: The first post of this three-part blog series focused on the use cases. In this post, I highlight the business value and improvements that companies in the Swiss manufacturing industry perceive. The third one will examine the obstacles and challenges.

Firstly, the interviewees hope to address existing inefficiencies. Some would like to reduce paper in order to avoid outdated information and to reduce rework and improve quality. Others hope to gain speed because workers would have their hands free or could share their view. In addition, they expect to reduce inefficient routes on the shop floor through better instructions. Some of my interview partners want to address cumbersome communication, especially in the engineering and design phase where a shared understanding is crucial.

The company representatives also hope to avoid mistakes or recognize them earlier when their workers are supported with augmented or virtual reality tools. Thinking of operations, AR glasses might superimpose hints for critical tasks to workers on an assembly line. Or placing new machines virtually in an existing factory could reveal collisions of existing infrastructure with the new machine before making the expensive purchase. Similarly, one interview partner imagines that instructions on AR glasses would help to enforce best-practice operation sequences in order to gain speed and to improve the quality of end products. In another conversation, we discussed that augmented work instructions could lead to increased flexibility in the planning of service personnel or other critical resources. This will be possible because less-skilled workers could suddenly perform tasks that are more difficult or one worker could execute a greater variety of tasks.

(Zühlke / Lea Allemann)

In most interviews, the company representatives stated that both virtual and augmented reality could help to improve the understanding for products and processes. Various stakeholders, from sales people to engineers and customers could benefit from this. My interview partners were convinced that sales people who could have a virtual look at the inside of the company’s products or production machines would achieve a better understanding and this would improve their sales rate. Moreover, some companies even expect better customer service by using AR/VR. Not just because the right AR/VR applications lead to shorter delivery times and higher quality. Also, because comprehensible repairing instructions on AR devices such as tablets or glasses during breakdowns would reduce down-times.

Furthermore, issues with products could be eliminated. As for example overcoming physical limitations by providing additional product data or explosion drawings on an AR/VR device. Or a digital representation of a product on AR or VR devices would simply enable “carrying” and showing large or secret products around.

From an ethical perspective, AR/VR will help to put people at first place and is therefore appreciated by many leaders. Despite technological advances, many interview partners state that the human being should remain the center of any activity in an ideal production. Technology should support workers as good as possible but not replace them. AR/VR directly enhances the capabilities of people and thus supports their ideal.

Obviously, the company representatives also see new or trendy technologies such as AR, VR and MR as a possibility to increase job attractiveness and company reputation. Finally, these new technologies are seen as a tool to support strategical initiatives related to digitalization. New service models become a reality and by digitalizing processes, the companies are moving closer towards Industry 4.0.

Personally, I think that augmented, virtual or mixed reality can be hugely beneficial – if the right use case can be found. These use cases are company specific and must be selected carefully. Process complexity, lot size, number of product variants, and alternative solutions are just some factors that need to be taken into consideration before concluding that AR/VR/MR is a good solution to a problem. In many cases, AR/VR/MR-based solutions are hyped but then turn out to be not so ideal.

The aircraft manufacturer Boeing has succeeded in finding suitable use cases and is now reaping the benefits. First, they extract virtual components from the CAD and overlay them to existing modules to check for collisions before producing and assembling the components. They found that this case is beneficial for high value, low rate assemblies such as satellites. In one example, the existing module was not build exactly as specified in the CAD and they detected that the new component would interfere with it. This early detection of the mistake eliminated trouble, rework and additional costs. Another very interesting use case at Boeing is the wiring of their aircraft. This extremely complicated process is now supported with AR. Electricians are able to superimpose wiring plans to the real aircraft for guidance.

Finally, Boeing uses AR for training in especially troublesome processes. They implemented a 45-step training episode on how to install a doorsill. The AR training combines digital objects with real objects and shows all steps that need to be performed. They reduced training time by factor four and have now more workers that are able to perform this process.

Long story short: If you have the right use case, AR/VR/MR will reward you with a high return on investment and bring you ahead of your competitors.

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