Augmented Reality for Industry—Without the Glasses

Oct. 15, 2013
An equipment-specific document management and retrieval app combines OPC-based real-time data and off-the-shelf Apple hardware to allow wireless access to text and video-based repair/restart instructions, so operators and maintenance engineers can keep downtime to a minimum.

If you visit and search “manufacturing document management systems,” you’ll find 45 entries for software systems designed to help you find the right technical manual, schematic or procedures document when you need it. And if you own one of those packages or something similar, you know that it can still take too much time and effort to view those documents when you’re standing in front of a stopped machine that needs attention.   

System integrator iQuest—a specialist in PLC/HMI programming for machine shops—knows that problem. “When maintenance guys go to the line to fix a machine that’s down, they’re wasting a lot of time,” says Bob Meads, founder and CEO of iQuest Inc., Alpharetta, Ga. “You can’t get the product data at the equipment where you’re at. You have to look at the problem, then go through 40 pounds of technical resources to find what you need.”

Or, Meads adds, if you want to know how fast and long a motor has been running, it’s on a control room screen somewhere. Or on an interface 20 feet away and someone has to shout out the values to you. “Thirty years ago, I could get information at the source because pressure valves and indicator lights were hardwired in. Now, with HMIs, you don’t know anything. That’s a problem, especially when you’re troubleshooting,” he says. 

Technicians lose a lot of time not having the right documents or information. “When the biggest cost in a plant is unplanned downtime, you can try to alleviate it by making the line more efficient or by fixing it faster. Our app helps you fix it faster.  We are making the equipment the central point for obtaining data about that equipment [again], instead of five or six other sources,” says Meads.

iQuest’s app, for the iPad and iPhone, is called iQagent. It takes advantage of the capabilities of regular Apple hardware—mobility, wireless connectivity to the cloud, integrated camera, high-resolution screen—and combines that with OPC communications drivers and server software from Kepware Inc. to create an augmented reality device for accessing real-time machine data and technical documentation.

Like Google glasses?

Unlike Google Glass applications, which require special goggles on which to project the data, iQagent uses existing iOS 6 (and soon, iOS 7) hardware. (Meads says, however, that iQuest is looking into adapting their technology to Google hardware as well. “They have an API we’re checking,” he says.)

A healthcare products manufacturer using iQagent “is saving money every day,” by not wasting time going back to a control room to pull schematics, technical manuals and machine documents out of a company database, says Meads. Using iQagent, they point an iPad’s camera at a QR code on the side of a machine and the right information comes up instantly. The same can be done for bottling line machines or printing press motors, he says.

The iQagent app is free. What’s running behind the scenes and powering the app is the iQagent server. To set it up, you use the software’s configuration tool to a create a “point of interest”—a motor, valve, warehouse shelf—that you associate digitized technical document files (PDFs) or live data points located in your SCADA system or coming from a PLC. A QR code is created for each point of interest, and a label with that code is attached to the machine or shelf.

When an operator, engineer or technician needs to retrieve the information, he or she scans the QR code with the iPad’s camera. Suddenly, overlaid on the camera image is a table of real-time data, a list of relevant PDFs and/or additional search options. There’s also a menu function that doesn’t require the scanning of the code, for those who want to browse and choose from a list of points of interest.

iQagent gets live data from the process via OPC, and “Kepware does OPC better than anyone else,” adds Meads. There are other apps that are OPC-specific, but they are often tied back only to a specific piece of vendor hardware. “Kepware has hundreds of drivers that can talk to any system. They also have a simulation driver for memory and values so I can quickly test [the communications],” says Meads. “If Kepware didn’t exist, I would have had to prefer one type of vendor hardware, or do what Kepware did and build all those different drivers myself.”

Video for troubleshooting

Another function, which Meads says the company just got a patent on it January, is the holistic recording and display feature, which makes creating and sharing augmented videos a possibility.

“Using the iPad’s camera, a person can record the process running or not running, add real-time process data and verbal comments, then e-mail it as a compressed MP4 file,” says Meads. “Now I don’t have to explain the problem again. I can just show it to someone and get their advice.”

Also, if there’s a problem with a piece of equipment—say, a filter gets clogged—an augmented video could be immediately accessible that shows how to change the filter. 

As with any document management system, setting it up can be the biggest challenge. Asked about that, Meads talked about iQuest’s largest user, an automotive manufacturer who created 5,000 iQagent points of interest for one plant. “All data is stored in an embedded database. You can export it and use all the magic of Microsoft Excel, and then put it back in,” says Meads.

That import/export capability was used by the automaker to configure iQagent quickly. “They already had several hundred PDFs in a certain format, so we were able to write a script that could put all data links in and configure the 5,000 points of interest in a little over a week,” Meads explains.

The automaker has been impressed with the results of the first project, so it has decided to automate document retrieval using iQagent in a second plant later this year.

Is it really time for consumer technology to slip so easily on the to plant floor? What about wireless connections? What about security? Meads responds:

“I haven’t been in many plants that don’t have a wireless network installed now. As for the BYOD [bring your own device] concerns, it used to be you didn’t want people bringing their own things onto the plant floor. But 80 percent of anybody walking in now has a smartphone or tablet that they bought themselves, and they want to use it. As for the security, the main way we address it is we’re not an HMI. You can’t control anything; we don’t allow write backs to the process at all. Also, data is encrypted, so data doesn’t have a context if someone hacks it.”

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