Fixing Things with Augmented Reality
Ian Wright posted on January 17, 2019 |
One of the best things about science fiction is its perspicacity. Watch Star Trek: The Original Series, and you’ll see portents of smartphones and video calls. Communicators and viewscreens may have seemed fantastical at the time, but today we take them for granted. If we take modern sci-fi franchises—such as Iron Man—to be similarly prophetic, then we should expect augmented reality (AR) to become commonplace in the near future.

Of course, that’s not going to happen unless AR can prove its worth. Smartphones are so popular because they’re so useful; video calling maybe less so, but only because it can still be unreliable. One of the biggest hurdles for AR adoption—cost—is becoming less so over time, as computing power increases and hardware costs decline. However, that still leaves another major hurdle, integration, which often comes down to finding the right application. For AR in manufacturing, that application is maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO).

Augmented Reality in Manufacturing

The basic idea behind AR is simple: rather than displaying information on an opaque screen, we can project directly it onto a users’ perceptual field. These informational overlays typically take the form of smart goggles or glasses, including Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens and RealWear HMT-1. Augmented reality interfaces also tend to differ from more conventional information technologies in terms of their inputs. Whereas a device based on a desktop computer or even a smartphone is controlled via keystrokes, taps and mouse clicks, AR interfaces often feature voice inputs. This frees up a user’s hands and potentially streamlines assembly and inspection tasks by eliminating pen-and-paper checklists.

Exactly what information is displayed on a set of AR glasses—and how—depends on the given application, but it doesn’t take much imagination to come up with all sorts of ways to use AR for manufacturing. For example, augmented reality can enhance a worker’s ability in assembly tasks by superimposing simple step-by-step instructions on their field of view. It can be used to check machine status at a glance, or as a visualization aid in planning out installations. Perhaps most intriguing of all, AR can be used for remote expert support, giving the engineers at head office the ability to “see” through the eyes of workers at a plant half a world away.

Despite these advantages, AR still has a ways to go technologically. Field of view (FOV) represents one of the most crucial areas for improvement, with even the best AR displays only offering up to 90° compared to the 190° horizontal and 120° vertical FOVs for normal human vision. Augmented reality heads up displays (HUDs) are getting better, but they still have a ways to go.

Augmented Reality for Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO)

The advantages of AR cited above are amply demonstrated in the context of MRO applications. For example, the ability to enter information via voice input in place of pen-and-paper checklists can streamline inspections and maintenance routines. Moreover, experienced workers equipped with AR devices can narrate routine maintenance and inspection tasks as they perform them, enabling companies to build up libraries of instructional materials over time with relatively little effort. Arguably, eliminating the need to switch back and forth between a task and a checklist for that task could also reduce the risk of error by keeping inspectors and maintenance technicians more focused.

Similarly, the ability to overlay a worker’s visual field with step-by-step instructions—including animations depicting the proper assembly or disassembly of parts—offers the potential to reduce lead times and error rates in MRO operations. This suggests that adroit use of augmented reality in MRO could help address the manufacturing skills gap.

For much the same reason, remote expert advice is an obvious application for AR in MRO. Field service often requires experts to travel to remote worksites, but the telepresence afforded by AR means a single expert can service multiple sites without ever having to leave the office.

It’s been said that there’s no substitute for a hands-on education, but whomever said that hasn’t seen what AR can do. Many of the biggest players in manufacturing have begun to take advantage of what this unique technology can offer.

For more information, including case studies, download our special report on Augmented Reality for Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul.

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