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When most people think of virtual and augmented reality they think of interactive games, educational programs, and marketing applications. However, there is a whole other side to this technology which even its most ardent fans might not be aware of: industrial productivity.
Thanks to companies like Apprentice Field Suite (AFS), and Laster Technologies, based near Paris, France, augmented reality is already making its way into the biopharma, aerospace, logistics, and manufacturing industries. Just last year, DHL carried out a pilot project in a warehouse in the Netherlands which improved its order picking process by 25%.
How does industrial augmented reality work?
Augmented reality works by combining digitally generated information with a person’s view of the physical world through the use of glasses or a headset. In an industrial setting, this can mean overlaying data, images, checklists, audio, or video across a worker’s field of vision. The headset also has the ability to record and transmit video, which means a remote expert could see exactly what a worker sees and provide direction or feedback in real time, with great accuracy, and without the need to travel to the site themselves.
The display itself is controlled by the movement of the eye, allowing a worker to view and navigate information while still maintaining free use of both hands. According to Jim Marggraff, CEO of Eyefluence, a company specializing in “eye interaction” software technology, anything you can do with your finger on a smartphone or tablet such as zooming in on content, and navigating data can be done with your eyes. Not only that, but it can be done faster since you can access data simply by looking at it.
What are the benefits of augmented reality?
Augmented reality has the potential to be used in widespread industrial applications. Technology from AFS allows wearers to collaborate with remote engineers and expert technicians who can see exactly what workers in the field are seeing via their smartphone or tablet. They can even give instructions by drawing on the screen– such as circling a panel or button–which then shows up in the wearer’s field of vision, eliminating the ambiguity of more traditional instruction.
Written information can also be displayed. Checklists, operating procedures, product information, assembly instructions, floor plans, and more can all be accessed through smart glasses. Gary Pignata, co-founder of AFS, reports that hands-free operation has helped them increase efficiency by up to 42% in procedures which require workers to reference written information.
This data is backed up by Boeing who conducted an experiment in which 3 groups were tasked with assembling an aircraft wing twice to gauge its effectiveness with novice workers. One team used a stationary desktop with PDF instructions, one team used a mobile tablet with PDF instructions, and one team used a tablet with augmented reality instructions. The study found an almost 90% improvement in quality between the desktop and AR teams for the first build, and a 30% improvement in time. The AR team also made no mistakes on their second build of the aircraft wing, demonstrating that AR is an effective training mechanism.
Augmented reality could potentially be used by everyone from warehouse logistics personnel (allowing pickers to find, and identify packages with near perfect accuracy) to oil rig operators (who must go through security compliance checklists) to law enforcement officers (who need information about a suspect or vehicle without drawing their attention away from the situation or requiring the use of their hands).
How soon will augmented reality be ready for business?
Although the technology is improving at a rapid pace, there are still several barriers which must be overcome before we begin seeing augmented reality in factories and on job sites anytime soon. There are four key technologies which will shape the future of AR.
- Optics: The size of the field of view is currently limited by the weight, size, and power requirements of optical components of the display.
- 3D Capabilities: Substantial computing power is required to for all the interactions to occur in real time within 3 dimensions. While this is feasible for desktop computing, the size requirements of the headsets mean we still have a way to go.
- Authoring: AR software must be written to meet the needs of a wide variety of contexts and work environments. The current development landscape is fragmented and not well integrated.
- Interaction: Human interaction with the device is so far limited to eye movements, gestures, speech, and motion tracking, and further advancement of this technology is needed.
However, interest in augmented reality is clearly on the rise among large enterprises, and it’s already proved that it can provide a huge benefit to any company willing to make the investment. As the technology continues to advance over the next two to three years, we should start seeing companies begin to adopt the technology and put it to work.