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Augmented reality (AR) is a game changer for the manufacturing industry

13 March 2019

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have been around for years, but their recent evolution has transformed the way they are used and the endless capabilities that they can offer.

As the technologies enter the consumer world and become more mainstream, many sectors are using VR and AR to improve customer experience. This is no different for manufacturing and engineering, with the two forms of reality truly revolutionising the way we manufacture, measure, repair, innovate and collaborate. 

But what do VR and AR really look like within manufacturing? 

Increasing numbers of manufacturers have a dedicated VR cave where engineers can put on headsets and fully engage themselves in a virtual environment. The immersive nature of the technology means that it is rarely used outside of a safe space; VR headsets completely obscure the users’ field of vision, which could be dangerous on a busy factory floor. 

Effectively breaking down barriers for manufacturers, VR allows in-depth design reviews on a highly accurate scale across numerous locations. It also plays a vital role in training, taking the dangerous situations out of real-world hazardous environments by allowing engineers to first practice the job in a virtual space. 

A previous project at the AFRC looked at the task of transferring ammonia gas from a tanker into a storage tank using VR. Any spillage in real life would result in suffocation, so first allowing trainees topractice the procedure in the virtual world was vital. 

AR, on the other hand, does not have the same safe space requirement as VR. It augments the users’ current environment and shows an interactive image, while allowing them to see the world around them. Consequently, it can be deployed in any given space for numerous industries. 

We will likely see it become more mainstream within manufacturing, with it being brought on to the shop floor. Providing more context than VR, it enhances the real world scene with virtual holograms, providing intelligent data for use across a greater variety of applications. 

One of the ways we will see AR create impact is allowing experts to fix equipment remotely without ever visiting the site. Using this technology, they can feed instructions to a technician, potentially saving huge travel costs, as the expert no longer needs to travel from where ever they are in the world. It can also reduce the time required for repair from days to hours.

Like VR, AR will also transform the way we train staff, but in this case, employees can actually learn on site. Gone are the days when work instructions had to be fed to an employee with complicated descriptions and rough drawings that are hard to understand and easy to get wrong. AR technology will review what the employee is looking at and show them how to complete the next step, giving instructions in real time and providing validation when the task is complete. 

The Augmented Worker, a project the AFRC is currently part of focuses on the construction industry. The outputs, however, could have a much wider impact by minimising the need for engineers to possess the spatial awareness required to translate, compensate and visualise a 2D drawing into 3D. It will allow 3D models to be brought onto the shop floor or the construction site, eliminating the need for mentally translating 2D drawings into their 3D equivalent. 

Using an augmented reality headset, it will show engineers where fittings should be placed instead of having to navigate lots of complex 2D drawings, which is a skill that can be difficult to teach and a hurdle that many prospective engineers cannot overcome. Through the technology, we can break down this skills barrier and permit more people into engineering by altering entry requirements for engineers. 

With 5G rollout on the way to the UK, we will see an impact to the way we use AR on site, with less of a difference to VR, which will continue to be used within a safe space. As we go mobile with the technology, anything that can transfer data more quickly will enable application of the technology to various processes in any given 5G location.

VR and AR technologies within manufacturing and engineering are becoming increasingly important and sought after. As we continue to develop the technology, we are able to incorporate them into various projects to achieve numerous outcomes, finding endless opportunities that can improve the way we manufacture and engineer. 

Danny McMahon, senior manufacturing engineer and digital manufacturing team lead, at the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre 


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