April 29, 2016
VR/AR is being used as an advanced manufacturing technology tool – just like robotics, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things.
There’s been no shortage of hype – and investor excitement – surrounding virtual reality (VR) and its cousin, augmented reality (AR). If the technology catches on, as many believe it will, millions of us will be crossing into new realities soon. Combined VR and AR sales are forecast to hit $150 billion by 2020, according to one estimate – with AR alone comprising about $120 billion. But the verdict is still out (and has been for some time) on whether the technology will be as pervasive and life-changing as some breathless tech pundits predict.
Yet, far from the hipster searching on her smartglasses for the closest Thai restaurant in Brooklyn, there are legions of early adopters using the technology in innovative ways that have nothing to do with entertainment or media.
Take America’s factory floors. According to a recent PwC survey of US manufacturers, one in three US manufacturers are using or will adopt VR and AR in the next three years. Why? To improve across many fronts. Among the most popular applications are product design and developments, followed by safety and manufacturing skills training, maintenance, repair or equipment operations, and remote collaboration. And about 75% said that the technology will be important to US manufacturing competitiveness. That’s why one US maker of fighter jets is equipping its engineers and assembly workers with smartglasses to work hands-free with images, data, and information available to them with a tap of the device.
Or, consider manufacturers that create avatars – digital representations of factory-floor workers – to test what changes to a facility are needed to reduce strain on employees’ backs during assembly. Or, using VR to create virtual prototypes of, say, an engine or car interior, which designers and engineers can actually walk around and experience, cutting the considerable time and expense required by physical models. Taken a step further, virtualizing products before even a physical prototype is created enables manufacturers to share the product in the testing phase with customers, creating a far better collaborative relationship.
And for more dangerous jobs in industrial settings, intelligence has been added to the old hard hat. 4D “smart helmets” are equipped with sensors, including thermal vision camera and a headband that measures the wearer’s body temperature, heart rate, and even brain waves to monitor workers in dangerous situations or environments and how they may be reacting.
What we’re seeing, then, is VR/AR as an advanced manufacturing technology tool – just like robotics, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things. Consider the places manufacturers are taking the technology even its inventors might not have envisioned:
- Materials handing: Warehouse workers using smartglasses which read barcodes on containers of supplies inventory boxes and provide content details and destination/origin information.
- Remote maintenance: Field technicians relaying a live image of a part that needs to be fixed to a remote colleague who supplies relevant data, instructions, or images that could serve as a “live virtual repair manual.”
- Augmented assembly: Assembly workers using smartglasses to help track complicated assembly processes to ensure all parts are assembled in the right place and sequence, removing downtime of consulting a clipboard, manual, or tablet.
- Improved inspection: Parts inspectors taking a photo of a part that needs to be modified – or also adding a spoken record of the issue – and relaying those data to the appropriate co-worker in seconds.
In addition to America’s factory floors, we expect to see more cross-pollination of VR/AR across many sectors. So, will 2016 be the year of virtual reality? For many innovators across vastly different industries, it already is.