Although the industry-wide push for developing and adopting fully automated “lights-out” manufacturing systems continues, a considerable portion of the activities involved in manufacturing still requires the skill and dexterity of human hands. The use of virtual and augmented reality in manufacturing can assist humans in performing these tasks with precision and efficiency.
Immersive technologies have transcended their origin from works of fiction to now appearing in real-world, mainstream use. The emergence and proliferation of smartphones have hastened the propagation of these technologies among the general public. And while attracting the attention of the global populace, they have also caught the interest of businesses who have capitalized on people’s fascination with immersive technologies. This has resulted in the development of immersive technologies in customer-centric applications. For instance, the use of immersive technologies, i.e., VR and AR in digital marketing is being increasingly adopted by businesses, both big and small. But now, as the novelty is beginning to wear off among consumers, businesses are shifting their focus inwards and devising applications of these technologies for improving their business-critical operations. The application of technologies like virtual and augmented reality in manufacturing is an example of the transition of immersive technology from consumer-focused applications to employee and process-focused ones. Immersive technologies, due to their ability to enhance the users’ visibility into processes and give them the right information at the right time, are proving to be a natural fit for manufacturing processes as is being demonstrated by the implementation of immersive technologies by major manufacturers.
The Need for Immersive Technologies in Manufacturing
Manufacturing processes, since the introduction of automation and the industrial internet of things (IIoT), are becoming less and less reliant on manual work. An increasing number of manufacturing units are working towards what is known in industry parlance as ‘lights out’ manufacturing. It is especially being adopted in areas where extreme precision is needed and where there is minimal need for customization, variation, and inspection. Examples of industries where lights-out manufacturing makes sense are material and chemical processing plants, refineries, food processing and packaging, and mass manufacturing units for simple products.
However, most products that are manufactured nowadays undergo continuous change with the evolution in the needs of the customers. Consequently, manufacturing needs to be highly flexible, yet equally or even more intolerant of non-conformity. Although eventually, these processes will be automated with the use of general-purpose robots, for now, they will need the dexterity of human hands and the decision-making capability of the human brain. And unlike the general-purpose robots that will have superhuman information processing capabilities, humans cannot process large volumes of information fast and hence cannot make decisions based on all the information available. They cannot sense or see hidden patterns as well as artificial intelligence-based systems can. And hence, human workers need assistance when they perform the different tasks involved in the manufacturing process, all the way from initial designing to final inspection.
The Applications of Virtual and Augmented Reality in Manufacturing
The adoption of virtual and augmented reality in manufacturing, although only in its nascent phase, is already turning out to be a major game-changer for manufacturing players. It is helping manufacturing processes become more efficient by enhancing worker-productivity and plant utilization while even contributing to design improvement.
The production of goods in manufacturing processes is generally preceded by extensive planning and designing exercises. As a functional product design is the essence of quality and a key driver of product value, manufacturers lay a heavy emphasis on getting the design right. Conventionally, designers have been using two dimensional CAD models to test and try products which are essentially three dimensional. For products that have to be tested in real-time, physical prototypes are used by designers to test product design. These prototypes are difficult to make, and even more difficult to redesign for trial and retesting. In addition to being expensive, it also extends the time to market (TTM) as physical prototyping requires redoing the model multiple times, each iteration requiring time for the physical recreation of the prototype.
Using virtual reality, designers can conceive products in three-dimensional space and test those products in simulated environments until the design is finalized. In addition to minimizing the time to market, virtual reality also offers the ability to test products under expected conditions and identify design flaws that cannot be highlighted using conventional testing methods. This ensures that the manufactured products are perfect by design and minimizes the likelihood of product recalls and other undesirable results of product failure.
Manufacturing operations have the need to be agile to keep up with the changing demands of the market and customers. To achieve that, they need to be able to make decisions quickly, yet by going through a thorough and detailed analysis of the available information. However, the amount of data that needs to be analyzed for arriving at safe and effective decisions can be too great for decision-makers to process and understand easily. This leads to a delay in the decision-making process, consequently delaying the requisite action, and ultimately achieves the opposite of agility. It is becoming increasingly evident that the use of data visualization can enhance executive decision-making and ensuring that not only are answers to questions are easily found, but also identify new questions that can drive higher performance and further growth.
Using virtual and augmented reality in manufacturing-related data visualization expedites the process of decision-making at all levels of the manufacturing organization from top-level strategic decisions to critical operational decisions.
Equipment breakdown is an issue that causes unexpected stoppages in manufacturing and requires immediate responses from maintenance teams. Sometimes maintenance teams may not be close at hand to be able to restore the equipment to full-functionality in time to prevent a significant loss in productivity. Data visualization pertaining to the performance and health of manufacturing equipment can enable maintenance teams to identify equipment health issues that generally go unnoticed. Using AR equipment to guide amateur personnel while fixing these problems can ensure that manufacturing facilities function without too many long stoppages, maximizing plant and equipment utilization.
Inspection for quality is a key component of manufacturing processes. As organizations push to maximize productivity, they also emphasize raising the quality and conformance standards of their products. To ensure high product quality, in addition to employing automated testing methods, human quality inspectors often have to inspect hundreds of units to spot defective ones. Due to human limitations, this leads to the inspectors missing out on subtle indicators of non-conformance. The use of augmented reality combined with artificial intelligence and sensor technology can elucidate even the most subtle deviations on manufactured units, enabling higher standards of product quality.
On-the-job training is necessary for manufacturing employees to perform their roles with maximum efficacy and efficiency. This process requires time, and deploying inexperienced recruits to perform critical operations may compromise the quality of work, or even lead to safety issues. Training new employees in a virtual reality environment can enable them to gain experience and proficiency in performing their function without compromising on productivity, quality, and safety.
The indispensability of virtual and augmented reality in manufacturing set to become a common trend in the coming years, at least until highly capable and generally intelligent robots take over from us. However, it is also possible that, with the improvement of these and other technologies that ease the involvement of humans in manufacturing further, we might not need robots for a long time, after all.