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Manufacturing Embraces Hybrid ‘Reality’

Alan Rooks
By Alan Rooks Editor in Chief, Manufacturing Engineering

The virtual world has been encroaching on the “real” world for years, and this year’s COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of virtual reality in our private and working lives. With millions sheltering in place and working from home, companies learned that most information-based tasks could be done from home.

This is not really new. People have communicated rapidly and remotely since the telegraph and telephone. Fax machines, PCs and the Internet further enabled remote work. What has changed is the sheer number of people working and learning remotely.

Of course manufacturing is different; making things like airplanes and automobiles still requires people to gather in one place. But the processes that surround manufacturing are increasingly virtual, with many employees working remotely. As a result, “reality” in manufacturing is increasingly a hybrid mix of the actual and the virtual.

This trend will only accelerate. Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI) are used in design, production, training, and customer service. A report by Asite found that the U.S. leads the adoption of digital engineering with technologies that include HD photography and 3D laser scanning.

Likewise, ONE Tech, a developer of edge AI technology, claims that auto manufacturers are reducing downtime and increasing overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) in assembly lines by more than 15 percent using its MicroAI and Helio technologies. In one case, an automaker found that robotic welding arms were performing at just 50 percent OEE. Using MicroAI and Helio, OEE increased to 80 percent.

Even safety, traditionally driven by training and manual identification of safety risks, is going virtual. Honeywell and Wolters Kluwer are integrating Honeywell’s Industrial Internet of Things connected devices and safety software with Enablon environmental, health and safety (EHS) software from Wolters Kluwer. The goal is improved safety via monitoring of EHS performance; early warnings from Honeywell equipment; and preventing accidents and unsafe situations. For example, an electronic questionnaire provides access codes and times of arrival to improve social distancing. At the entryway, AI-based elevated body temperature monitoring solutions conduct non-invasive personnel screenings. The system also detects if individuals are wearing the PPE required for entry to the building.

Meetings are also becoming hybrids. As COVID-19 has prevented large gatherings, meeting producers developed virtual alternatives. For example, on Oct. 29, SME, AMT and AMI presented “The Best of SMX,” a smart manufacturing digital event that included 1,500 attendees who listened to presentations, spent time at the SME Zone and Networking Lounge and made 4,000+ booth visits.

Even when we can be together again, these digital components will remain. In other words, we’ve seen the future of manufacturing, and it’s a hybrid mix of virtual and actual reality.

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