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An Introduction to Augmented Reality in Manufacturing

By Susana Acosta | Business Development Media

An Introduction to Augmented Reality in Manufacturing

Augmented reality has transformed from a futuristic idea into today’s real-world applications. Building on the ever expanding presence of technology, engineers and designers today are able to reproduce real-life experiences with simulations contained in cameras and small viewing portals.

Examples of augmented reality (AR) can be found across a broad range of industries including medicine, video gaming, and sports. Manufacturers welcome the trend in order to elevate the complexity of their products and services, while increasing accuracy and reducing the necessary focus and time of employees per single part. Not only is this field expanding to include the latest developments in its own arena, but augmented reality is also making it feasible to achieve hybrid technologies that have only been imagined before.

Researchers, managers, business owners and employees are constantly collaborating to bring their efforts to the forefront of the market and to the workspace in their companies. Major enterprises have also found ways to involve the public to help people understand exactly what is meant by the term ‘augmented reality’ and its application to a diverse group of situations.

What is Augmented Reality?

While augmented reality becomes a more powerful force in many manufacturing areas, it is easy to forget that some forms of AR media have been used in other industries for years. Ulrich Nuemann, a researcher at University of Southern California, reminds us that ‘the simplest example that almost everyone is aware of is the yellow first-down line shown in football games. No matter how the camera views the field, the yellow line looks like it's attached to the field’. Therefore, the seamless association with technology could be translated to the manufacturing industry with the growth of other technology products.  If the research and demand are present, there is likely to be increased developments coming to market.

Putting Augmented Reality to Use

The manufacturers that have implemented augmented reality have seen that the ability to experience possible scenarios before fabricating the part is an essential step of the planning process and could save money and defuse possible challenges before they arise.

Nuemann understands how AR in manufacturing is changing the environment as a whole. AR applications for manufacturing take advantage of two characteristics of AR—its richness and its ability to attach media to scene objects. For example, virtual objects may be shown attached to real assemblies in a way that conveys how each part is to be assembled or disassembled. Text can be used to deliver instructions (i.e. remove this bolt). In the same manner, video clips can show a procedure that is hard to describe in text form and the video can reference specific points or objects along the way. 

“The whole point is to reduce the cognitive load on the worker by making instructions clearer and information easier to understand.  That reduces fatigue and increases the likelihood that the correct procedure is performed,” says Nuemann. By ensuring that this happens as it should, AR tools have the ability to assess the accuracy and timing in tasks that are performed by those on the work floor at all times.

According to the authors of Manufacturing.Net, manufacturing companies are taking advantage of as many of these features as possible. Location awareness is one benefit that streamlines processes like service work, data delivery, and demonstrations. For instance, “smart” safety glasses, created by XOEye Technologies, make it possible for workers to transmit their progress via a Bluetooth connection on their phones.

What Makes Augmented Reality Possible?

Augmented reality requires expertise in: computer vision, computer science, information technology and engineering to develop the manufacturing systems and processes to provide prowess for where and how to implement augmented reality systems. For businesses with employees with factory experience, their background provides insight into possible obstacles that may arise.

Examples of augmented reality used in manufacturing include wearable gadgets and virtual monitors. For instance, Joel Neidig, R&D Manager at ITAMCO (Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies), explains how the company developed mobile applications which accurately provide surveillance and progress reports of machine shop floors.

ITAMCO’s “Virtual Factory” app is a project that is being developed to provide their clients the opportunity to explore their spatial environment more thoroughly. The app gives managers and their teams the opportunity to visualize how a series of tasks would be performed and how they would match the needs of the company. ITAMCO began the application development in 2009 and has delivered a total of over 65 apps to clients, such as Boeing and Caterpillar, in the oil, gas, mining and aerospace industries. While ITAMCO has encountered great success by winning 2nd place this year at the Google Glass MT Connect competition, Neidig revealed the most challenging part of his work is not necessarily software development, but the data connection between users and the “smart” device.

“All of our apps are free for people to use. It’s when they need to customize something or add particular features that would cater to their own company or client needs that they contact us for quotes,” states Neidig. “This way, they have a chance to try out the product and see if it is a good fit for what they want to do.”

Bob Meads, President and Software Engineer at iQuest, a software development provider, shares how iQuest is making strides towards a more practical path. “We want to always be on the cusp of something new,” he says, “However, we want to focus on developing the practical apps. The ones you see in commercials, where there is a guy opening a car and he’s wearing goggles that illuminate different features, are usually million-dollar projects and not necessarily the most helpful. The most helpful apps are those which recognize equipment in a shop, shows data and reports, and are able to readily pull up documents about the machinery there.”

Augmented Reality Moving into Reality

It becomes an invaluable asset to companies to use augmented reality at various levels in the workplace. By adding capacity to projects in the form of virtual services, companies can produce a lot more for a lot less – and without increasing the workload of their current employees. Not only is it useful on the manufacturing floor, but companies are using augmented reality as a means of reaching out to the public, not just their own colleagues.

Recently, Bosch took its interactive experience on the road. The nationwide Bosch Xperience Oculus Rift tour made 750 stops and trained 8,000 to 10,000 service technicians on direct-injection and braking technology using the Oculus Rift headset to take three-dimensional tours of the inner workings of a car engine to enhance technicians’ understanding. The mobile tour consisted of a classroom experience, which was supplemented by wearing the Oculus Rift DK1 to watch the automotive parts in action. The sessions consisted of a 10 minute virtual lesson followed by a 15 minute discussion centering on the participants’ thoughts, including how to implement the ideas into their work environments.

At iQuest the focus is developing automation integration and robots through HMI (Human Machine Interface) systems. The iQagent app is accessible through iPads and is being used by clients at major automakers. The app has been so successful that iQagent has won both Plant Engineering’s Product of the Year Gold Award for 2012 and the TabTimes Business Award for 2014. Meads says they are currently working on another version of iQagent for the Microsoft Surface Pro tablet.

In the automotive sector, additive manufacturing has taken advantage of AR applications to produce higher quality objects that can be imagined in real-time as opposed to being drafted through CAD systems. The visualizations presented by augmented reality have allowed data reporting to transform into increasingly interactive statistics – like allowing a floor manager to see the daily progress of factory projects through voice overs, statistics, and cameras on the shop floor.

The innovative techniques produced using augmented reality for teaching and implementing manufacturing procedures promises to reduce manufacturing hours and improve operation without sacrificing accuracy and workplace collaboration.

Looking Forward

When augmented reality becomes widely accepted as a disruptive technology the benefits will increase exponentially. Multiple Fortune 500 companies have realized the benefits and are moving toward implementing augmented reality programs. Augmented reality expedites current projects instead of increasing the workforce needed to meet project deadlines. Additionally, augmented reality will be widely used as an interactive training device. Augmented reality allows the user to receive orientation and training in a three-dimensional environment that will provide a greater perspective of the project at hand. Augmented reality is forever changing the roles of management.

We are looking forward to more forms of augmented reality utilizing the technology available for manufacturing.