Manufacturers are putting virtual reality to work…and in surprising ways

January 9, 2016

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Virtual and augmented reality are helping manufacturers innovate in ways we could have never imagined.

In last week’s post, we shared some findings from an upcoming PwC survey on adoption of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology adoption. The gist of what we learned is that manufacturers are finding ways to use these technology to boost productivity and quality across a number of fronts – from design to warehouse functions to training and worker safety.

And, while much of the hype around virtual reality headsets has been largely confined to gaming, and smartglasses as some expensive high-tech accessory, we find that manufacturers are finding surprisingly clever ways to use the technology. Consider that, according to our upcoming survey, about one of three manufacturers are already using – or are planning to adopt – VR and AR technologies in the next three years.

Manufacturing creative applications

According to our survey, early adopters of VR are applying the technology to virtual assembly and improved process design applications, with 17% of manufacturers using VR applying it in that way. Consider some manufacturers which 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.

AR applications are varied, too, coming in handy with tasks such as warehouse packing and logistics or assembly – jobs that are hands-on. Smartglasses free up those hands and remove the many instances of down time; instead of stopping to consult a printed instruction manual or a tablet (or to grab a hand-held scanner, for example) relevant data can be accessed with a tilt of a head or a spoken word. 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.

The AR/VR fence-sitters

Meanwhile, what’s holding back some manufacturers from jumping into the AR/VR world? According to our survey, about one-third of respondents not adopting say they are sitting on the fence because they have “yet to identify a practical application,” followed by those who cite prohibitive costs (20%) and others (19%) who believe the technology is not yet “ready for prime time.”

What’s next?

What can we expect going forward? While, as mentioned earlier, about two-thirds of manufacturers are using or plan on using VR/AR in the next three years, nearly 90% of those same manufacturers believe that no more than half of all manufacturers in the US will be using AR/VR technology over the next decade. At the surface this seems puzzling. But maybe what this is telling us is that adopters of VR/AR may believe they are higher up on the tech adoption curve than their peers.

In any case, as the technology improves and price points lower for headsets and smartglasses, we expect manufacturers to keep finding creative applications to improve productivity, efficiency and, most importantly, worker safety.

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Contacts

Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email