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Augmented Reality: In this Case, the Writing’s on the Work Station

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

A Michigan company that displays instructions for manual manufacturing processes on work stations via augmented reality (AR) is adding wearables to provide similar guidance.

OPS Solutions, Wixom, Mich., whose Light Guide Systems use a projector to relay instructions directly onto work stations, recently started offering Sight Guide using its proprietary software and Vuzix M300 Smart Glasses or the Microsoft HoloLens, which the company refers to as headsets.

OPS’ technology is designed to reduce errors in manufacturing and can be used for training as well as assembly, inspection, quality control, and logistics.

“As far as the headsets are concerned, there’s a black box application running on them waiting to connect to our Light Guide software,” said Ryan Feldman of OPS, who trained in virtual and augmented reality at Michigan State University. “And then once we connect, we can relay the work instructions to the headset and also utilize all of the power of the headset to advance through our work instructions, take a picture, show videos—all that kind of stuff.”

Brian Close, executive sales director at OPS, said of the image offered by Vuzix’s monocle-style glasses, “What it really looks like when you wear it is a little TV screen that just sort of floats in your field of view. It looks as if it’s four or five feet in front of you, usually either a little bit below your main focus area or a little bit above. We’re primarily deploying them, so far, in logistics applications although we have some interest in other areas as well,” he stated.

The company is launching another new product, Spot Guide, in conjunction with the wearable smart glasses. Unlike its original Light Guide (which uses off-the-shelf projectors from Casio, NEC, Panasonic or Sony that would be cost-prohibitive to deploy in a large distribution center or warehouse), Spot Guide uses spotlights to guide an operator to a rack. Then the wearable takes over to guide him to the correct item on the rack. He can even use the wearable to scan a barcode to verify he’s picked the correct part.

OPS is also tinkering with other wearables such as the Magic Leap One. Although wearables are immersive and overlay instructions as a hologram for their wearer, the drawbacks to these wearables have been safety and battery life. The battery lasts for about four hours and then has to be charged. Unlike on the Vuzix glasses, batteries on many wearables can’t be swapped out for a freshly charged one.

In terms of safety, the HoloLens and Magic Leap One block some field of view.

“There are all these tactical issues that from a hardware perspective we know they’ll solve,” said Close, referring to the wearables manufacturers. “It’s just a matter of it not quite being ready for prime time for most manufacturing situations.”

Reducing Mistakes in Manufacturing

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OPS Solutions’ Light Guide Systems use augmented reality on a work station to guide manufacturing workers doing manual processes. (All images provided by OPS Solutions)

All of OPS’ solutions are designed to reduce mistakes in a manufacturing workplace by guiding a worker through the steps necessary to complete a task with error-proofing checks built in, like a virtual checklist.

The company’s technology is better than a paper checklist because it’s interactive and provides a range of error proofing, said Close. For example, in some applications, the program may not advance unless an error is fixed and then verified by camera inspection.

In addition, by presenting information for the next steps in a process automatically, OPS’ solutions take the decision-making of whether to look up the relevant instructions away from an employee who may not know exactly how a task is supposed to be done.

“People say they’re supposed to go look at the work instructions every single time, but that doesn’t happen in most work environments,” said Close.

OPS’ solutions can help overcome errors due to workplace distractions, too. Close said mistakes can happen when a worker who’s going through a checklist is interrupted by a co-worker, a ringing phone or some other urgent need. Turning back to the checklist, the worker goes on to whatever task he thinks he was on, but he may not be right.

“We can eliminate that,” Close said. “And we think we can help by remembering exactly how to do the process, making sure that a worker does it right.”

The level and amount of instruction can be tailored to the task as well as to the experience and skill level of the workforce using OPS products. Also, customers can write work instructions themselves. Close said anyone who understands how to generate a Microsoft PowerPoint slide deck can write basic work instructions in OPS’ guided solutions.

“If you start plugging in other tools, such as vision cameras or torque tools, oftentimes you need a little higher-level capability to get into that,” he said. “You don’t need a computer science degree; a manufacturing engineer who understands those tools should be able to do that work, but it does get more complicated.”

The company’s solutions can also collect data and communicate it to a factory’s control system.

Applications in Other Industries

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In addition to manual manufacturing processes, Light Guide Systems can be used in the medical field in hospitals’ central processing departments for sterilizing surgical instruments and assembling pieces into kits for different types of surgeries.

While OPS has focused on trying to error-proof manufacturing, there are other industries that could use its technology, such as foodservice and medicine.

Close said he envisions use of OPS’ Guide technology in hospitals’ central processing departments for sterilizing surgical instruments and assembling pieces into kits for different types of surgeries. He also thinks they’d be useful in operating rooms for ensuring all of the necessary devices are on hand for a surgery and then, post-surgically, for transporting to central processing for another procedure. The scenarios he paints go directly to patient safety and quality issues, two key focus areas for hospitals.

“Think about the stories you hear every once in a while, such as a tool being left inside a patient, or a surgeon is halfway through a surgery and finds that he’s missing something,” Close said.

Expanding its reach into industries other than manufacturing is just one of the ways OPS is growing. In 2018, it established a European headquarters in the Czech Republic to capitalize on the industries in Europe that aren’t as automated as those elsewhere around the globe.

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