While many of us are familiar with the adoption of virtual reality (VR) across a range of industries and sectors, and in a variety of applications, augmented reality’s (AR) rise has often been in the shadow of its better-known and better-understood counterpart. But it’s time for VR to step aside—or at least get used to sharing the stage with the real-life applications of AR, which are promising to shape the near future of mobile technology.
Augmented reality is a technology that allows computer-generated information, data, images, video or other content to be overlaid onto the real-world environment. This is done using applications on devices such as smartphones, tablets or wearable technology such as Microsoft Hololens. It enables the projection of useful data onto our real-world environment—in the vernacular of every good science fiction novel—right before our very eyes.
The earliest use cases, unsurprisingly, were military applications, but the overwhelming adoption of smartphones over the past few decades inspired an explosion in interest in AR, largely within the mobile gaming industry.
More recently, applications for healthcare, education, fitness and transportation have emerged. And, as we’ll see, even manufacturing and industrial applications have adopted the use of AR, which offers both fresh solutions to old problems as well as opening up new opportunities and applications.
Access to Expertise
Numerous projects underway within industrial service organizations are investigating the use of augmented reality to bridge the gap between remote service engineer experts and on-site field technicians and field service engineers.
One such effort, at ArjoWiggins Creative Papers in Scotland and Papier Fabrik Adolf Jass in Germany, involves taking commercially-available wearable headsets and embedding them with maintenance strategies, documentation, guidance and other service best practices. The aim is that access to this information, at the point of use, along with years of best practices, can improve the effectiveness of field service. This in turn improves asset availability and productivity.
“This technology will take field service people through a sequence to replace a part, for instance,” said Michael Kerley, research & development manager for quality control and web inspection systems for ABB’s pulp and paper product group. “If embedded headset guidance is not enough, a user can access higher-level engineers, who can see what the user sees through the headset and guide them.”
This remote access to expertise is a cornerstone of the AR offering. A key challenge in maintaining production assets in environmentally-challenging industrial plants that often operate 24/7 is ensuring those at the plant have access to the expert support and guidance they need to maintain high asset availability and optimized performance.
Increasing Productivity and Efficiency
AR can significantly increase plant productivity by diagnosing and resolving problems quickly and efficiently. Faster problem resolution means a reduction in costly downtime in cases where production has been halted by the severity of the problem.
Having advice and expertise on hand accelerates problem identification and dramatically reduces waiting times because there’s no need for an expert to physically travel to the site. They can engage rapidly and remotely. The quality of the repair is also improved by live access to an expert who is familiar with the problem and has successfully guided themselves or others through it on numerous occasions. The travel costs of transporting an expert to another country or continent to assess a problem are also removed.
ABB conducted an AR pilot at Europe’s largest open-pit copper mine. As the most efficient mine in the world, it produces more tons per man-hour per year than any other operation. To maintain this level of operational efficiency, production demands require the most sophisticated service response times. In one example from this trial, an ABB engineer used AR remote support technology to solve an issue in just 30 minutes instead of the normal three hours. In another example, at a mine in Australia, an issue that had gone unresolved for three years was fixed within a week when AR was used to record and share footage of the problem with ABB experts.
In terms of the costs associated with deploying AR equipment, there’s more financial good news: As well as the commercially-available headsets and glasses (including the well-known Microsoft Hololens, which was the model used in the aforementioned pulp-and-paper trials), many everyday devices like standard smartphones and tablets support AR apps. This allows personnel to use devices they already have or, if purchasing, reduces the financial barriers to entry for potential users of the technology.
Another advantage of using smartglasses and headsets is that they provide a hands-free experience with obvious safety benefits for activity in the field. Smart functionality and remote expertise allow on-site personnel to troubleshoot issues with potentially dangerous equipment from behind the protection of a barrier.
For example, an ABB pulp-and-paper team in Ireland proposed using AR technology to reduce the risk of arc flash while performing inspections. Arc flash can have severe physical and sometimes fatal consequences. The use of AR smart technology enables the operator to stay outside the arc flash boundary. It allows for inspections to be conducted at a safe distance or without entering a machine room, so maintenance and safety checks can be recorded in a much lower-risk environment. The value of AR in these situations is in allowing field technicians to see site conditions before entering, or to identify and direct individuals away from hazardous areas.
In their ability to connect experts with field engineers smoothly and speedily, AR applications are also changing the way we think about knowledge transfer, and opening up new opportunities to harness and record knowledge for more efficient use.
The way we conduct our careers these days is different from even the relatively recent past. In an environment where employment turnover is higher than previous generations, people don’t stay in the same roles or within the same organizations for as long as they used to, which in turn has implications for internal institutional levels of expertise and experience. AR facilitates transfer of knowledge between staff and across generations and locations in a more efficient way, adapted to the pattern of current employment trends.
AR applications not only help with passing on knowledge gained from past experiences, but will also help address future problems. In their capacity to record, analyze, diagnose, resolve and ultimately share solutions to issues, they provide an opportunity to create a vast library of meaningful troubleshooting guidance accessible on demand by field personnel. This body of knowledge will grow and become more sophisticated as use and scope increases over time.
Another Level in Service Agreements
The potential time and cost savings of AR are driving its adoption in industry, and will be a key motivator in service-buying decisions. Along with these benefits, it also offers the capacity for safer working practices and more efficient and effective knowledge transfer.
The ability to provide the same expert level of support as when the expert was in the same location as the field technician cannot be understated. Customers will see a reduction in downtime as equipment is brought back online much sooner. Mean time to resolution will decrease as the knowledge base and competency sharing available among experts is expanded. Knowledge transfer from senior to junior engineers will accelerate thanks to the hands-on experience afforded to field engineers through AR.
Augmented reality technology will allow for another level of value in service agreements. Customers expect service providers to be innovators and thought leaders who pioneer the use of new and emerging technologies. These innovations in AR highlight one more way we’re meeting those expectations.
This article was contributed by Kim Fenrich, ABB Industrial Automation Service product manager — Simulation Technologies.