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America’s Factory Floors Reimagined: Introduction to Virtual, Augmented Reality Technologies

Dave Morton
By Dave Morton SME Industry Development Manager for Aerospace and Defense

As augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies come of age, manufacturers are finding easier ways to adopt these technologies on many fronts—from product development, to training, to maintenance and repair, to worker safety. And, in the wake of major investments in the technologies over the last couple of years, a new generation of VR and AR devices and software is becoming available. Combined VR/AR sales are forecast to hit $150 billion by 2020, with AR alone comprising about $120 billion.

VR and AR are advanced manufacturing technology tools—just like robotics, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things. And they’re being used by manufacturers in innovative ways, such as virtual assembly and improved process design. Manufacturers can create avatars—digital representations of factory-floor workers—to test what changes to a facility are needed to reduce strain on employees’ backs during assembly.

Manufacturers can create virtual prototypes of an engine or car interior that allows designers and engineers to walk around and experience—cutting the considerable time and expense required by physical models. Taken a step further, virtualizing products before even a physical prototype exists enables manufacturers to share the product in the testing phase with customers, creating a potentially better opportunity for feedback and collaboration.

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A factory technician using VR technology.

In addition to helping to visualize and contextualize information, AR/VR also help smooth a critical issue facing manufacturing: the aging workforce and shortage of skilled manufacturing labor. It enables manufacturers to collect and preserve the information that “lives in the heads” of these highly skilled workers and digitally capture it in many ways.

Mechdyne, a broad-based technology provider, first began delivering virtual reality systems two decades ago. Their very first project focused on creating a virtual reality firefighting simulator for the US Navy. This system was conceived of as a better way to train cadets how to safely fight fires on-board, complete with a virtual hose and water. With a reduced or eliminated need for supervisors to perform training, employees can receive consistent, up-to-date, interactive training that results in improved situational awareness during day-to-day operations, special projects, or emergency procedures.

Another big opportunity for AR/VR technology is in Maintenance, Repair, and Operations (MRO). Imagine buying a new piece of machinery; rather than reading an owner’s manual, you can join your entire team in “seeing” how to properly operate, maintain, and repair the machine. Newport News Shipbuilding, the largest industrial employer in Virginia, and sole designer, builder and refueler of US Navy aircraft carriers currently use AR for specialized instructions on unique custom spaces. Google Glass 2.0 is being incorporated into much of the shipbuilding industry through complex subassemblies and larger assemblies, tight spaces and inspection: imagine a ship inspector who can take notes within his Google Glass, sending his notes to other inspectors connected through Google Glass for their own updates and training.

Current studies reveal that 80–90% of workplace accidents are due to human error. Virtual environments provide a zero-consequence space where employees can reenact on-the-job situations safely, improving situational awareness and reducing injuries in the workplace. Employees experience real-time “virtual” consequences, allowing them to learn from mistakes, optimize processes, and learn potentially dangerous procedures in a safe environment without risk to themselves, teammates, or equipment.

As the technology continues to mature and price points decrease, expect manufacturers to keep finding creative applications to improve productivity, efficiency and worker safety. With products becoming ever more complex, any simulation platform must be tailored to the manufacturing environment. Companies that do this well can withstand the ongoing manufacturing “future shock” and thrive during this current industrial revolution—and the next.

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