Some of the augmented reality (AR) applications most likely to attract popular attention were presented in “Part 1: An Introduction to the Technology.” When employed by manufacturing companies, AR is less likely to be experienced directly by the masses, but may have a greater impact on their lives. There may be a shift, however, as AR applications pervade product development and end-user activities.
In this installment, we look at AR applications in manufacturing industries that improve operations, including product development, quality control, and maintenance. Some are involved directly in the transformation of materials to end products, while others fill supporting roles. The potential impact on customer satisfaction that AR use provides will also be explored.
Manufacturing with Augmented Reality
Manufacturing a product requires a series of activities. Before physical processing can begin, the object to be produced must be fully defined. The use of a digital twin – a CAD model – for this purpose was discussed in “Double Vision.” Augmented reality goes a step further by creating a coincident image of digital and physical twins to evaluate revisions. For example, a vehicle’s aesthetic redesign (“facelift”) data can be projected onto an existing vehicle to conduct a realistic visual analysis.
Other products can also be placed in their end-use environment by use of AR. Evaluations of aesthetics, scale, accessibility, or other characteristics can be performed to ensure that design intent is realized.
The finalized product design is released to production, where AR can be employed in various process-monitoring tasks. Assembly operations are particularly amenable to augmented reality. The point of insertion and orientation of each component to be assembled can be presented in succession, reinforcing the required assembly sequence. Additional data, such as the required torque of threaded fasteners, can be added to the display at the moment it is needed.
Small-scale assembly operations – those in which all activities take place in a single location – can be easily mapped; all items in the visual field will be recognized by the AR system. Large-scale operations, such as aircraft assembly, require assemblers to move significant distances to complete tasks. This type of operation requires additional technology for the AR application to be fully functional. A positioning system must also be employed to ensure that the operator is performing the defined set of tasks on the correct components. To understand how this works, think of GPS scaled down to operate inside a single, though expansive, facility. The expanded dimensions of these operations heightens the risk of error. Implementing a position-enabled AR application reduces the risk to a level comparable to similarly-equipped small-scale operations.
An alternate form of augmented reality is also used for specialized applications. Typical applications employ a headset, smartphone, or other display device to overlay digital information on physical objects in the operator’s field of view. This alternate form uses a light source, usually lasers, to project information directly onto physical objects. Carbon fiber layups and wiring harness fabrication are representative examples.
Maintaining consistent quality can also be facilitated by AR. Supplier performance can be verified with augmented incoming inspection. The “no fault forward” philosophy is supported by in-process verifications; AR can be used to ensure that components are present in the correct quantity, location, and orientation before allowing an assembly to be passed to the next operation. Final inspection with AR allows an inspector to confirm all prior inspections have been completed and logged while checking for proper labelling, packaging, or other details required to ship the product.
The value of AR to quality assurance can be expressed with Juran’s popular dictum “100% inspection is only 80% effective.” The consistency of an AR application prevents boredom, complacency, or distractions from causing a quality “spill.”
Manufacturers rely on a variety of equipment to remain productive. Therefore, proper maintenance and efficient repairs are critical to their success. Commonly regarded as a service function within manufacturing operations, maintenance and repair will be discussed further in Part 3 of “Augmented Reality.”
At the end of the chain of events sits the product user. Feature descriptions, operating instructions, and basic troubleshooting information can be provided in an AR environment. AR applications for end users can be used to target prospective buyers with marketing messages, coordinate purchase and delivery, enhance ownership, and create a feedback loop to inform designers of desired product improvements.
As mentioned in Part 1, training with AR spans all contexts discussed. In fact, the manufacturing applications mentioned thus far could be used for training in addition to performing the actual task for which they are designed. Practicing unfamiliar activities with AR allows a person to quickly gain familiarity with the physical objects to be manipulated, the digital information to be presented, and the unique environment that the combination creates. Doing so offline allows this to happen without interfering with production; productivity and quality are, therefore, unaffected.
New employee onboarding can be improved with AR applications that provide critical information in a format that is more easily accessible and interactive than the typical handbook. Great value can be derived from an AR application that helps a new employee locate safety equipment, such as first-aid and eye-wash stations, and learn safety procedures such as emergency evacuation. Similarly, AR can be used to show an employee where to retrieve supplies necessary for their job. AR applications used for these purposes and others are likely to be far more memorable, easier to access for refreshers, and more interesting than traditional materials. These favorable characteristics engage employees more fully, improving learning curves, information retention, and job satisfaction.
Launching AR in Manufacturing
While AR is broadly applicable to manufacturing operations of all types, organizations should begin by looking for tasks with characteristics that make them especially attractive for AR implementation. In this section, the types of operations that are most likely to yield a quick payback and generate enthusiasm for AR within a manufacturing company are described.
Dull, repetitive tasks are often subject to higher error rates than would be expected based on their level of complexity alone. As boredom sets in, the resulting inattention leads to errors or omissions. AR could prevent such mistakes by guiding operators through each cycle, verifying correct completion for every part produced.
Tasks performed infrequently can be affected by operator’s “memory leaks” – information that fades from memory because of disuse. In this situation, AR serves to remind operators of details that could be forgotten or overlooked. The operator is already proficient in task performance; the AR ensures quality through task accuracy and completeness.
Long processes with many steps that may be difficult to memorize could benefit greatly from AR. The traditional response to this scenario is to split the process into groups of tasks to be performed by multiple operators in succession. Each operator then rotates through assignments performing each set of tasks. However, not every process or operation is amenable to equitable division. Effectively splitting the workload and efficiently completing a process with job rotations is, itself, a recurring process. Changes to the product and process must be evaluated and work redistributed as necessary throughout the life of both product and process.
Job rotations are also implemented to prevent repetitive stress disorders and mistakes due to inattention, discussed earlier. Equipping operators with AR could eliminate the need for task-splitting and rotations. Each operator performs a wider range of activities, reducing repetitive stress and boredom. Advantages discussed above – higher engagement and cyclic reminders – also prevent memory leaks from negatively impacting productivity or quality. Responsibility for a larger set of tasks increases operators’ ownership of results and improves job satisfaction. It also becomes easier to monitor individual performance to identify candidates for special recognition, development opportunities, or those with advancement potential.
High-risk operations are prime candidates for AR implementation. If employee safety can be enhanced, it should be given serious consideration. Other risks worth consideration include process failure, equipment damage, quality spill, environmental impact, and competitive threats.
Focusing on operations with these characteristics will give your AR launch a greater chance of success and acceptance. Deployment of AR technology can be expanded to less-obvious applications, applying experience gained from the initial installations, as support for the effort strengthens.
Entertainment applications of AR, as mentioned in Part 1, often direct users’ focus to the augmentation, using the real world as merely a canvas or backdrop. In contrast, commercial applications employ augmented reality to maintain focus on important elements of the user’s surroundings or the process in which the user is engaged. In this case, the risks are highlighted to ensure that they are properly addressed. This simply means that the intended purpose and environment must be kept front-of-mind throughout development to ensure that AR applications meet the objectives defined by the adopting organization. Loss of focus on these objectives may lead to loss of support for an AR initiative, a setback that could damage improvement efforts for years.
Service industries combine public exposure and process efficiency objectives, a unique environment that creates extensive potential for AR implementation. In “Part 3: Applications in the Service Sector”, we will explore how these special characteristics generate benefits from augmented reality. Look for it soon on “The Third Degree.”
If you would like assistance evaluating potential AR applications or implementing an appropriate solution in your manufacturing facility, contact JayWink Solutions to schedule an initial consultation.
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Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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