Apple's Vision Pro announcement has sparked a renewed interest in the world of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Looking through the lens of industrial environments, these technologies have already made significant contributions to manufacturing, maintenance, and training processes.
In this article, we'll examine key areas in which they hold potentially transformative power for the industrial sector with input from Hubs' in-house engineers as well as other industry experts.
A Primer on Augmented and Virtual Reality
Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that superimposes digital information or virtual objects, such as images, videos, or 3D models, onto the real world. AR enables users to interact with and manipulate this digital content in real time, creating immersive experiences through devices like smartphones, tablets or specialized AR glasses.
On the other hand, virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated simulation of a 3D environment that users can interact with and explore. VR typically involves wearing a headset that displays virtual content and may include additional peripherals like hand controllers or haptic feedback devices.
How Can You Use AR and VR in the Industrial Sector?
In the industrial sector, AR is employed to enhance worker productivity and accuracy by overlaying digital instructions, real-time data, and visual cues onto machinery or workstations. This aids in assembly, quality control, maintenance, and troubleshooting, reducing errors and downtime.
VR, on the other hand, offers immersive simulations for training purposes, allowing workers to practice complex procedures or hazardous scenarios in a safe virtual environment. This helps them to acquire new skills, mitigate risks, and save costs.
Overall, AR and VR empower the industrial sector with innovative solutions that optimize productivity, efficiency, and safety. Here are five examples of applications.
1. Factory Layout Planning
AR and VR can revolutionize factory layout planning by providing immersive and interactive experiences of a factory before it's constructed. With AR, designers can overlay digital models onto physical spaces, allowing them to visualize how different equipment and layouts will fit within the factory environment. This can help identify potential design flaws or bottlenecks before construction begins, saving time and reducing costs. XYZ Reality uses AR to ensure precision in prefabricated construction.
VR, meanwhile, can enable stakeholders to virtually explore and interact with the planned layout, providing a realistic sense of scale and perspective. This allows for easy modifications and optimizations, facilitating collaborative decision-making among architects, engineers, and factory managers.
2. Operator Training Simulation
AR and VR can also offer valuable training simulations for operators. With AR, operators can make use of real-time, contextual information overlaid on physical equipment, guiding them through complex procedures and enhancing their understanding of equipment operation.
VR can create immersive environments in which operators can practice handling various scenarios in a safe and controlled manner. By replicating real-world situations, trainees can gain hands-on experience, improve their skills, and learn how to respond to different challenges.
3. Real-Time AR Instructions
Through wearable AR devices or mobile applications, workers can receive contextual information overlaid on their field of view, such as step-by-step instructions, safety guidelines or equipment specifications.
Real-time AR instructions can be particularly beneficial in complex assembly processes, maintenance tasks or quality control procedures, where precision and accuracy are extremely important. Companies like Airbus have already integrated Microsoft's mixed reality Hololens into its factory processes.
4. Remote Maintenance
AR and VR can transform remote maintenance by enabling technicians to collaborate with experts from anywhere in the world.
With AR, technicians at the site can wear smart glasses or use mobile devices to stream live video to remote experts. Experts can then overlay virtual instructions or annotations onto the technician's view, guiding them through the troubleshooting or repair process in real time. This significantly reduces travel costs and downtime, as experts can diagnose and provide guidance without physically being present. German brand Oculavis has demonstrated such capabilities over the last couple of years.
5. Safety Alerts and Evacuation
AR and VR technologies can play crucial roles in safety alerts and evacuation procedures. AR can provide real-time safety alerts and warnings by overlaying visual cues or instructions onto the user's field of view. For example, in hazardous environments, AR can highlight potential dangers, mark safe pathways, or display emergency protocols.
VR can simulate emergency scenarios, allowing users to experience and practice evacuation procedures in a realistic virtual environment. This enables individuals to familiarize themselves with emergency routes, equipment locations, and evacuation protocols, leading to better preparedness and faster response times during actual emergencies. Additionally, VR simulations can help identify potential flaws or bottlenecks in evacuation plans.
What’s Next for AR and VR in the Industrial Sector?
For further insights on where AR/VR currently stands in the industrial context, and to identify the steps needed before it could play a more significant role, Hubs reached out to experts in design and manufacturing. Here's what they had to tell us.
According to Charles Goin of Virginia-based firm Goindesign, VR and AR are where Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) in the architectural engineering and construction market were 10 years ago.
"We've got the software we need, but the hardware has some catching up to do," he says. In his opinion, AR seems to hold the edge over VR, until VR becomes photorealistic, which again is going to be hardware-driven. The biggest moves in that field were, of course, made by Meta, HTC, Valve, and now Apple. Given that others paved the way but didn't quite strike gold, it will be interesting to see where Apple takes it.
Robert Jones, Manufacturing Engineer at Nissha Medical Technologies, also sees the huge potential of AR technology in the manufacturing space in training operators as well as remote maintenance.
"In our facility, we use both manual and semi-automated processes to manufacture safe and functional medical devices. Training operators for these tasks can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. An AR-based program could transform this, offering real-time work instructions for efficient assembly. Paired with AI, it could even provide real-time alerts and corrective actions."
The areas listed above are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to AR and VR in the industrial sector. Because both technologies are constantly evolving and improving, new applications and use cases are often introduced, resulting in increasingly sophisticated ways of interacting with industrial environments.
As AR advances, for example, the technology may become more compact and wearable, with devices like smart glasses becoming more lightweight and comfortable. This will make AR more accessible and practical for workers, allowing for hands-free operation and better integration into existing workflows.