Augmented Reality Is Key for Smart Manufacturing

June 20, 2016
Though so much of our attention has been on the Internet of Things, the cloud, Big Data, etc., augmented reality will help our people connect with the intelligent machines around them.

Last week I attended a conference strongly connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) and on how IoT can help close the loop from design to product, through manufacturing and automation. I don’t want to talk again about IoT, not because there’s nothing to say, but because I think that I’ve written enough about it for now. I will write about IoT again only after I complete our first project, which we are working on now, and I have some real feedback from the real world. In order to not lose confidence in all the possibilities IoT enables, we need to start talking about real examples and no more about great theoretical use cases, especially in manufacturing.

The conference I was at also focused a lot on virtual and augmented reality. This is a technology that is not often considered in the list of big trends that will transform the manufacturing world in the next few years—things like the cloud, Big Data, analytics, mobility and IoT. Probably because I was not expecting such a focus, I was really surprised of how a simple and integrated development environment could unlock the huge potential of augmented reality to help manage operations in a smart way.

In my opinion, augmented reality could definitely be key to solving some of the problems that manufacturing companies will face in the near future. Here’s why.

It’s already clear that smart manufacturing is no longer an option—it is an essential requirement for every company in order to be competitive or survive in the market. Smart manufacturing leverages many different technologies to enable people to run companies in a smarter way, but the central point of any smart manufacturing initiative is people and enabling people to interact and make better and faster decisions. One of the big things that IoT is changing is that people will not need to interact only with other people, but also with machine and devices. The more intelligent machines are, the more users will need to interact with them and the more they will expect to do it in a natural way.

In the consumer world, we are already used to interacting naturally with objects. We talk with phones to dial numbers, ask for advice on restaurants, verify the weather forecast or get directions to reach our destination.

Augmented reality can be a very easy and natural way to interact with many types of devices or machines on the shop floor. Using a tablet, phone or more sophisticated device like Google Glass or Microsoft HoloLens, the operator could just look at an object, wherever it is, and get all the information he needs to interact with that specific object. Information can be differentiated basing on roles, activity, phase of the process, or any number of parameters, to provide exactly the right data he needs. This gives a different understanding of what’s happening and unlocks a huge amount of possibilities in terms of delivering complex information exactly where it needs to be used and consumed, enabling better and more informed decisions.

At the same time, this solves a big problem manufacturing companies are facing: the aging workforce. Experienced operators are retiring and new ones will never develop the same knowledge and experience, just because they will not stay on the same job long enough to do that. This means that companies need to collect the existing knowledge and put it in systems that can help to maintain it and to deliver it to the new generations. Augmented reality could be a very effective way in delivering the knowledge in the right place at the right time. It also could be an effective training tool, since everyone knows that seeing something is much more effective than reading about it or listening to it. A picture is worth a thousand words! And that is exactly what augmented reality does, superimposing information onto the real world, creating “pictures” that are easy to understand and effectively interpreted.

I believe an augmented reality project will be among my goals in the coming months. Stay tuned…

Luigi De Bernardini is CEO at Autoware, a Certified Control System Integrators Association member based in Vicenza, Italy. For more information about Autoware, visit the Autoware profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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