Boeing’s AR Tablet Tool for Assembly Lines

Until AR headsets become more robust, Boeing's AR software is useful, but trapped in the wrong hardware

Employees in one of Boeing’s Washington factories (where they manufacture a military tanker airplane) are using an odd looking tablet with a dozen or more .63 mm silver balls attached to it. 

This is Boeing’s vision of the future of augmented reality integrated on the assembly line.

The silver balls track the movement of objects in 3D space while six infrared cameras track the balls to maintain a real-time position of the tablet.  Image and reality match thanks to patented algorithms created by Boeing.

A mechanic can see both a real-world torque box unit he or she is assembling as well as digital instructions, parts and arrows to augment that real-world view.  The digital elements adjust with every motion of the table so they stay properly aligned with the real-world view.

Though the 3D augmented reality system is currently only a  pilot project (not part of everyday aircraft production), the Boeing mechanics who’ve tried the system quickly see the benefits of its potential implementation. 

“As soon as you pick up the tablet and see this, there’s a huge ‘wow’ factor,” according to Paul Davies, a technical fellow at the Boeing Research and Technology group, who’s worked on the project more than four years.

CIO Ted Colbert

CIO Ted Colbert

CIO Ted Colbert sees the augmented reality system as an example of an emerging new level of tech, which could greatly improve Boeing’s operations and financials, and believes the IT team is “feeling a bit of a rebirth.”

Creating breakthrough technology and getting it to perform reliably on the massive scale that Boeing requires won’t be easy. The augmented reality project is a perfect illustration of how these potentially game-changing innovations take time, investment and long-term commitment to even come close to real-world implementation. 

The Reality of Implementing Augmented Reality

“You see a lot of concept videos, and they look really flashy, but when you actually experience it a lot of times it doesn’t live up to the hype,” according to Davies.

In the case of this AR system, there are two major obstacles:

1.) There is no WiFi network available cover a huge area for 3D tracking. The infrared cameras in the torque box bay are not easily scalable for huge jobs like examining an entire fuselage of a 747. “Tracking something in 3D space is a very difficult thing to do,” Davies remarks.

2.)  The 3D display options aren’t optimal for a busy assembly area.  Davies says that “a lot of folks want wearable technology,” but those that are available aren’t quite powerful or flexible enough yet.  A display built into safety glasses worn on the production line would be ideal, but that just doesn’t exist right now, so they have to make do with tablets. Mechanics pick up and put down tools all day long, so the tablet could be thought of in the same way.

AR Software Is Ready to Go

Software is responsible for AR’s graphic rendering, CAD models, and user interfaces which Davies sees as less of a problem then scalability, for example. 

Boeing partnered with Iowa State University last year to put AR to the test. ISU gave 45 students assembly projects to complete using 1 of 3 methods: paper instructions, instructions on a handheld PC, or instructions using augmented reality. The results were obvious — the augmented reality group took less time to complete the jobs and committed far less errors than the other two groups. On the strength of this data, Boeing moved the pilot project into a factory for controlled testing.  

Boeing is betting on AR to help reduce training time, speed up build times and simplify shifting employees across different tasks. They are also hoping that AR will help retiring workers pass on their knowledge more easily to new employees.  

Not Quite Ready for Live Assembly Lines

AR technology isn’t ready to be implemented on a live assembly line, but Davies thinks people are ready to move beyond the 2D screen and accept 3D displays transpose digital images with a picture of their physical environment. Now, he and the rest of the Boeing R&D, IT, and manufacturing teams just have to get augmented reality reliable and flexible enough for a high-stakes factory environment. Says Davies, “We’re only a centimeter or an inch along a journey that’s going to be a mile long. There’s so much work to do here, and so much benefit.”

Similar Tools from Autodesk and Dassault

From Dassault, eDrawings for iOS with Augmented Reality (both the Standard and Professional versions) allow you to show your CAD drawings at full scale, which is great for realistic presentations and promoting products to customers. You can load an entire product line in eDrawings, and then use AR to display a variation of a specific product for anyone immediately. 

From Autodesk, there are a few which are focused in a similar direction such as Infraworks 360, which allows users to plan, design and engineer with real data out in the field  in real time with tablets.  

Autodesk Infraworks 360

Autodesk Infraworks 360

They also have the AR plug-in for the app Showcase, which is used by architects, engineers, designers and marketing professionals because of how easily 3D CAD models can be transformed into interactive walk-throughs and tablet presentations. 


Autdesk Showcase With AR Plug-in

Autdesk Showcase With AR Plug-in