Investing in the latest technology, even before it is considered "state of the art," can be super expensive, making it an impractical investment for most business-driven ROI (Return on Objective) analyses. For instance, fully graphical customized Augmented Reality (AR) solutions can cost millions of dollars to develop and deploy. Conversely, what appears to be the less talked about, easier, and more practical aspect of Augmented Reality is already assisting millions of us daily, which now extends into everyday manufacturing.
We Can, But Should We?
Many people have already watched presentations of sophisticated Augmented Reality, with folks wearing Augmented Reality goggles that show a remarkable series of graphics superimposed on top of what they are actually seeing. It is amazing how the superimposed graphics adjust to the surroundings as you walk around and move closer or further from the object. This part of Augmented Reality is more like Virtual Reality (VR), where the entire experience is based on three-dimensional images. Augmented Reality using three-dimensional image tracking is more difficult to develop than VR, because the identification of real objects and the correlation with virtual objects must be maintained constantly. This technology is very specific and precise and so new that it can be considered too risky and potentially unreliable. The biggest issue is the cost, as the identification and creation of 3D objects to the level required takes a lot of time and is very specific to each use-case, requiring custom development. Additionally, add to that issue the short battery life, the weight, and size of the devices. It is possible to do but for most assembly factory scenarios, does it makes sense financially.
The answer is no. However, there are some instances, such as performing maintenance or machine setup, in which the machine manufacturer has generated all of the required 3D images and recognition algorithms, have been standardized within the software, then sold as an "off the shelf" product to numerous customers, generating a justifiable return on investment. Generally speaking, Augmented Reality that is entirely based on a graphics-only approach is not realistic. Unless standards are put in place for these systems to have the ability to exchange information, things will just stay the same.
What Should We Be Doing with AR Today?
Contrary to Augmented Reality that uses the complicated tracking of graphical shapes, there is another aspect of augmented reality that is very useful, extremely common, and very affordable for assembly manufacturing. The heads-up display (HUD) in vehicles is an example of how a simpler Augmented Reality is already commonplace. HUD is an image of text and graphics projected onto the driver side windshield. It is a fixed image since it is not tracking anything occurring outside of the vehicle. Wearable AR glasses do the same thing by projecting data and graphics in the line of sight of the wearer. The graphics and data do not track the surroundings of the wearer and does not need to. Due to this, the Augmented Reality device, software, and data needs are a fraction of what would normally be needed.
Displaying contextual information in the driver's sightline is considered a major benefit, as it keeps the driver-focused and does not require the driver to take their eyes off of the road while looking down at the dashboard for information. A similar method allows assembly operators to view detailed work instructions through Augmented Reality glasses and not have to turn away from their work to look at a monitor or the need to use a barcode scanner, mouse, or a keyboard. It truly is a hands-free production line. Utilizing Augmented Reality like this in assembly, logistics, etc., generates a considerable advantage, at virtually no additional cost of ownership.
Is AR For Everyone?
There is no factory that I am aware of that does not want to increase assembly operator productivity twofold. Today's manufacturing requires assurance that standards are met and upheld, and everything is logged for traceability and quality reasons. Due to this need for information, productivity from traditional assembly operators has been falling during the past couple of years. Augmented Reality's pragmatic application eliminates much of this problem by automatically logging tasks from start to finish. For plants that manufacture safety-critical products or anything that needs to be traced and/or requires a zero-defect environment, implementing Augmented Reality can have an overwhelming impact.
An additional aspect is the application of practical Augmented Reality is to empower the production workers to be involved in the digital Industry 4.0 factory, which entails higher degrees of flexibility, making a greater variety of products, small lot sizes, and the competence to deal with unexpected change requests from the customer. In this situation, it becomes hard to improve labor utilization since a lot of time is used to prepare and tear-down operational processes in between jobs. Augmented Reality gives operators the ability to easily transition from job to job by displaying instructions and validations through the Augmented Reality headset. Changing to different assembly jobs, or even to a material logistics job, becomes seamless, without the need for specialist training that limits operators to particular jobs. When Augmented Reality is used by all the operators during production, it greatly improves work-experience, allowing the workers to be creative and involved in the digital manufacturing operation, increasing aptitude and effectiveness. Large assembly operations where it is not feasible to bring a laptop or tablet to the workspace to view 'paperless' digital work instructions such as a cramped aircraft cockpit can now be effectively supported with this Augmented Reality technology.
Sounds Good, So….?
Most factories would benefit from improved flexibility and assembly operator productivity, in addition to better traceability, while not increasing operating costs. Having seen the exorbitant purchase price and ownership costs associated with custom Augmented Reality solutions that include 3D image tracking, there is a belief that all Augmented Reality solutions are considered "bleeding-edge" technology. However, Augmented Reality that provides guidance for manufacturing plants is currently on the market with modern IIoT-based digital Manufacturing Execution System applications, which do not require custom software, extra data preparation or money. This type of Augmented Reality uses the same data that is prepared for paperless work-instruction stations that have been used in manufacturing for a very long time. Augmented Reality used in this manner provides business benefits by significantly improving paperless work instructions, which lowers costs and increases potential business opportunities.
A holistic Industry 4.0 factory that blends both automated and human assembly operations, in which the factory worker puts on their Augmented Reality goggles, and instantly becomes an integral part of the digital factory process, assisted instantaneously by the most up-to-date digital IIoT-driven MES solution is no longer a dream but a reality and is available now. For example, take a small lot that was not finished from the previous night. Augmented Reality allows the worker to continue exactly where the night shift stopped by displaying the work-cell assignment. The integrated camera scans barcodes, and voice commands validate each action. Every job is completed correctly and validated, and videos are saved where mandated to fulfill traceability requirements. Once that is finished, the worker is then given instructions to go and get the materials, prepare a process, perform a quality check, some incoming inspection, and then one more little job.
Let's start applying this Augmented Reality technology in a useful manner that accommodates the demands of modern manufacturing that does not involve risk, expenses, and investment in an unproven technology. This is the chance to become successful with the latest, most advanced, and useful technology, instead of having to deal with the headaches that come along with being on the "bleeding-edge."
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