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Big savings, quick ROI materialize with the use of AR

By Karen Haywood Queen Contributing Editor, SME Media

Using augmented reality, a Scope AR customer building titanium panels for the Orion space capsule in 2018 saved $1 million the first day. When the U.S. based company saw that overlaid augmented reality work instructions indicating where drill holes should be made did not match what a piece of mylar shim placed on the titanium sheet showed, the company investigated.

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Wearing a Microsoft HoloLens at a Creative Destruction Lab event in Calgary in May 2018, Vizworx President Jeff LaFrenz conducts a site visit to an industrial complex—ahead of the complex being built. The idea is to identify any problems with the facility so that they can be corrected early, reducing costs and time in design and construction.

The manufacturer “realized the mylar was placed backward on the titanium panel,” Scope AR CEO Scott Montgomerie said. “If they had proceeded, the locations of the holes would have been wrong. They would have ruined a $1 million piece of titanium. Augmented reality was ROI positive from Day One.”

In the last eight years, more than a dozen aircraft manufacturers spread over four continents have discovered that Delta Sigma’s AR system ProjectionWorks can immediately speed up the measurement of thousands of holes on wing and fuselage sections—from 200-300 holes per hour to 2,000-3,000 holes per hour, Delta Sigma CEO Roger Richardson said.

The conventional system involves using thumbnail scales to determine dimensions and writing by hand the hole thickness on masking tape. In one squeeze, the Delta Sigma wireless grip gauge finds the front and back of the hole, records the dimensions and then lights up the next hole. Training takes just a couple of minutes because the process is instinctively intuitive, he said.

“Before, you could make one small airplane a month,” Richardson said. “Now, using the same people and the same work cells, you can bring in AR and easily make two or even three airplanes a month. People call us and say they recovered their full cost in one airplane.”

As these two examples show, augmented reality is becoming indispensable for A&D manufacturers the world over. AR is increasingly being deployed in aerospace and defense for design, prototyping, production, maintenance and field work with fast ROI, reduced errors and significant time savings.

One of the most visible: Lockheed Martin Space is using the Microsoft HoloLens headset with Scope AR’s WorkLink platform to build the Orion space capsule, Montgomerie said in an interview with Smart Manufacturing.

“In an industry like aerospace and defense, the acceptable failure rate number needs to be zero—or as close to zero as realistically possible,” he wrote in a recent blog post. “Augmented reality is the ultimate ‘measure twice, cut once’ reference check.”

Over the last two years, AR has gained momentum in A&D and across other sectors, Montgomerie and Richardson said.

“We are now in 436 systems on 35 different aircraft in 15 countries on five continents,” Richardson said. “We’re working with 60 different companies, compared with a little more than half that 18 months ago.”

The main competition is inertia.

“The major competitor of Projection Works is not some other AR system,” he said. “When we do a proposal and lose, 99 percent of the time we’re losing to, ‘We’ve always done it that way.’ When we win, it’s because people working on the assembly line or directly supporting engineering people see the value and take it up to management to get funding.”

AR tech easy to learn

The technology is easy enough for both teenagers and seniors to learn, Montgomerie said.

“It’s probably a little more difficult than PowerPoint only because working with 3D is a little harder than working with text and images,” he said. “You’re creating a simple animation to show step by step how to do things. Engineers can get up and running on this in about a day. Some companies have trained high school students to create the animation for them. We’ve had 65-year-olds who are not super computer literate be able to use it.”

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Mechdyne’s Chad Kickbush, left, and Dassault Systèmes’ Jeff Smith, right, review an aircraft design in an
immersive environment at the National Institute for Aviation Research, a Mechdyne client.

Early adopters are quickly seeing the benefits.

“With AR, errors are dramatically reduced, sometimes to zero,” Montgomerie said. “You’re actually seeing what you’re supposed to be doing. There’s no misremembering instructions or skipping a step.”

Current and potential applications include submarines and retrofitting helicopters, Vizworx President Jeff LaFrenz said.

Other applications include painting aircraft, cockpit assembly systems and fire detection, Richardson said. These work-instruction systems guide a person as he or she completes a series of tasks.

“He is not looking at a book or computer screen, he is looking at the thing he’s building,” he said. “He sees it virtually in place. He just needs to make reality match the projection.”

2D just not good enough

AR brings clear benefits to design, design review and prototyping.

“When we can bring augmented reality to design and design review, we can change the game,” LaFrenz said. “We have the ability to not just imagine what 3D is but to actually experience 3D.”

“When you are designing a new vehicle, for example a plane, there is a tremendous amount of complexity to make sure everything is going to work well together,” he said. “You have to pull from knowledge and understanding of a lot of experts in different areas who are not necessarily involved in design on a regular basis.”

In a classic design review, 3D models are projected onto a 2D screen, LaFrenz said. But that loss of dimension makes it difficult for people who aren’t designers to imagine how that design will function in the real world.

Unfortunately, those insights often arrive much later in the construction process in the form of rework or change orders.

“We don’t get the insight around those spaces until we’re in them,” he said. “That’s where AR allows insights. We can reduce significantly the cost of infrastructure design and construction by giving them a spatial understanding through AR.”

Rework can be avoided

One Delta Sigma client bought a $1 million system that immediately eliminated $10 million annually in rework, Richardson said. Several Delta Sigma clients bought the system to gain faster throughput and then realized unanticipated savings in rework that was no longer needed.

“They tell me, ‘We saved so much on rework that our costs plummeted, and your system is essentially free based on what I didn’t spend on rework’,” he said.

Reviewers using augmented reality can walk around the design and, for example, easily see that they can get a wrench into a certain spot to remove a pump or they can reach a key control from their work station, LaFrenz said.

“Even better than virtual reality, augmented reality gives us true spatial sense,” he said. “We are attuned to living in a 3D world where when we reach to grab something, we don’t miss it. The closer we can get to providing people with information attuned to how our bodies see the world, the easier it is for the brain to understand and process data. To be able to actually walk around, gives us true spatial sense.”

Design iterations reduced

Using AR during design and modeling saved one Mechdyne client numerous iterations, said Zach Laws, operations manager for Mechdyne’s software business unit.

“The client we were working with had a very time-consuming and labor-intensive design modeling process,” he said. “Iterations made to the physical model were very costly, very time consuming.”

Roger_Richardson 3.jpg
AR can help manufacturers double up, said Delta Sigma CEO Roger Richardson. “Before, you could make one small airplane a month. Now, using the same people and the same work cells, you can bring in AR and easily make two or even three airplanes a month.”

Mechdyne developed a tablet-based AR application that lets modelers precisely overlay CAD data on the model even as they move the tablet or walk around.

The CAD data is matched to the physical features at millimeter accuracy. Motion-tracking cameras monitor the tablet’s position and orientation so the tablet’s viewpoint is known at all times. Mechdyne’s TGX remote desktop software is used to pull the CAD data from a remote workstation in real time and draw the CAD data to match the tablet’s viewpoint.

Instead of making changes to a physical model, modelers change the digital design, he said. The transparency of the digital model can be varied to allow designers to concurrently compare the physical model to the digital model, he said.

“Users can take a snapshot of the screen they’re seeing, freeze the snapshot, and then draw over the snapshot any changes and markups they’d like to be made,” Laws said. “It’s an iterative digital process rather than an iterative physical process. Quantifying the reduction in iterations would be challenging. But given the nature of changing the physical model and how costly it is to make iterative changes to the physical model, the ROI per iteration is very high.”

Shift in focus for design review

With AR in play, the nature of design review meetings is changing from designers selling users on their design to designers helping people understand how they’ll use the design, LaFrenz said.

Users can move around the room to specific parts of the design that impact their work.

Moving from design to build, AR speeds up production and offers higher accuracy.

“There’s a big binder of how to assemble the (Orion) capsule,” Montgomerie said. “The technician used to have to go into the binder, external to the capsule, look up the cable and torque settings, find the fastener, crawl into the capsule, fasten the fastener, crawl out. Then someone from Quality Assurance had to crawl in behind the worker to make sure the job was done correctly. Finally, the technician must crawl back in again to work on the next fastener.

“In the new world of AR, the technician wears a headset inside the capsule. The headset shows in 3D space where the torque value is floating above in space. The technician makes the adjustment and the headset takes the picture to show what has been done, eliminating quality assurance. Then the technician moves on to the next fastener without leaving the capsule.”

OOD segment significantly reduced

Looking at the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop first developed in the U.S. Air Force, augmented reality has helped Lockheed Martin reduce the OOD segment by more than 95 percent in building the capsule, Montgomerie said. “Overall, they saw a 35-50 percent reduction in technician time and a 42 percent improvement in overall productivity,” he said.

So far, larger companies have been an easier sell.

Of Delta Sigma’s 60 clients, 50 have revenue of more than $1 billion a month, Richardson said. But while some systems are costly—Delta Sigma’s most expensive one is $2.7 million—a small projection system can be had for $30,000, he said. Small- to mid-size companies likely could get their ROI in three to six months, he added.

Customizable systems coming

As users ask for more features, companies are working to create customizable systems.

For example, adding plug-ins will make it easier to create custom capabilities to do things that only one manufacturer or one unit within a company may need, Richardson said.

“We are making these customized plug-ins to adapt the interface to other kinds of equipment, to take different types of data than before, to get data from different kinds of measurement systems,” he said.

AR is less mature than VR but offers distinct benefits

Although virtual reality (VR) is a more mature technology and offers slightly better visual fidelity, AR “is more human-sense attuned,” Vizworx President Jeff LaFrenz said. Users of augmented reality maintain their kinesthetic sense of space; they can see their hands, can see other people around them.

“When you put yourself in virtual reality, you lose that kinesthetic sense of space,” he said. “In augmented reality, you immediately know whether that’s a door the size of a mouse or a door you can walk through.”

As AR evolved, it took on some tasks previously done by virtual reality and has done a better job in certain applications.

“While Panoptica supports both AR and VR model review, the consensus from all our clients is that VR has value but AR is superior for this purpose,” LaFrenz said. “Using AR, people get the same experience and insights from doing a site visit to a completed facility before anyone even puts a shovel in the ground.”

Similarly, Mechdyne and its clients also prefer running its system as augmented reality as opposed to virtual reality, said Zach Laws, operations manager for Mechdyne’s software business unit.

“One could theoretically run the system without a physical object present (functioning as a VR application), but we see little value in doing so,” he said. “The system we delivered provides value when the physical object (positioned in front of the user) is married to the digital model on the tablet screen, generating an AR experience. The transparency of the digital model can be varied, which lends well to the client’s use case for iterating on aesthetic design changes.”

Following the AR session users may choose to conduct post session analysis by exporting still ‘snapshots’ captured throughout the session back into the digital CAD application, Laws said.

The system preserves the exact coordinate location of the tablet viewing pane at the moment the snapshot was captured in the physical space, and translates this into the digital space within the digital CAD model, he said.

“This allows the CAD expert to view the captured snapshot of the session through the lens of the designer who captured it, which is extremely valuable when a designer intends to convey aesthetic design changes to a CAD expert for iterative design changes,” Laws said. “While this post session analysis could be conducted on a VR system, we would not consider this part of the process to be AR or VR, but the outcome of the changes made digitally become a key input for the next AR session in the sequence of the iterative design changes taking place.”

Users of AR are more engaged in their work

From design to build, users of augmented reality are more engaged in their work. Although AR doesn’t require people to be physically present in the same room for design review, no matter their geographical location, reviewers are more mentally present.

In typical model reviews without augmented reality, attention wanders, Vizworx President Jeff LaFrenz said.

“In a classic model review, two-thirds of people are on their phones because they don’t care about or understand what is being presented,” he said. “It’s an inefficient use of people’s time. But using Panoptica AR with our industrial client, I didn’t see anyone pull out their personal telephone the whole day. They were so engaged in how they were going to use it. There were multiple parallel model reviews going on as people navigated to various parts they were passionate about. It changed the dynamics completely within the team.”

“It’s a major psychological difference,” LaFrenz said. “The design feels more real as people walk through it. People are already engaged in using it.”

Beyond the huge cost savings noted in manufacturing, workers—similar to people in the design phase—also are more engaged.

“At the end of the day, your people are less tired even though they have accomplished a lot more work,” Delta Sigma CEO Roger Richardson said.

In anecdotal feedback, some workers have sought new jobs to ensure they could continue using AR, Scope AR CEO Scott Montgomerie said. Other workers have delayed retirement because they have become so excited about using augmented reality, he said.

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