Way back in December 1890, decades before it landed its first defense contracts, Newport News Shipbuilding delivered its maiden hull, a 90-foot tugboat affectionately named for the young daughter of a former Navy Secretary. Dorothy was delivered at a loss, well over budget. Big data might have helped to curb the overrun.

Augmented reality might have helped, too.

More than a century and a quarter later, NNS is on the front lines of manufacturers implementing augmented reality into any number of processes. The nautical leader, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, started to explore AR in 2007 and introduced the burgeoning technology to its shipyard in 2011 as part of a larger digital effort, according to engineering manager Patrick Ryan.

The tipping point, Ryan said, was a large project, sustained over three months in 2012, that introduced “digital storyboarding, a kind of mobile (virtual reality) solution” that cut down on the need for the massive drawings used for reference throughout the yard: “When we bring in a new generation of shipbuilders, giving them a drawing that’s three feet wide, two feet tall and a foot thick is not how they’re going to want to go to work.” Of course, the digital storyboarding also demonstrated a 35% cost reduction in the construction of one craft over those three months, which helped spark the overall shift toward digital.

Since then, Ryan said, “we’ve fielded more than 50 projects into our industrial waterfront using augmented reality to reduce cost, improve quality, improve safety, and reduce schedule—the four pillars.”

NNS uses tablets for just about all its AR initiatives, most often for inspection—Ryan said one inspection process that normally lasts 36 hours had been trimmed to 90 minutes—as well as work instruction, training and the continued elimination of those oversized ship diagrams. How can other manufacturers mimic the sort of success enjoyed on the Virginia shores, incorporating tech that most folks might recognize only because of the overnight success of Pokemon GO? Read on for some suggestions from Ryan and a panel of other industry leaders who have already dived into the enhanced world of augmented reality.

 

Start (Relatively) Small

Even now, after more than five years of development, the number of NNS employees working directly with AR remains “unimpressive,” Ryan said. The digital department numbers more than 200, but the company is only now exiting an AR pilot program and transitioning into a scaled deployment.

“That’s the next hurdle for us to cross,” Ryan said. “It’s an immediate effort for us. It’s not something we’re putting off—we’re working on it today—but no one would start with a scaled rollout. That would be crazy. You have to understand it first.”

Upskill
In this demonstration of how AR can be used, a pair of smart glasses allows for operating information or tasks to appear at a glance when an employee turns his gaze to certain spots on the floor. Accessing information instantaneously can trim time for tasks.

AR has a learning curve, like any developing technology, and jumping in by ordering dozens of smart helmets, smart glasses, or even tablets, makes about as much sense as installing a new IIoT plan without a whit of research. Using the hardware might feel like second nature, but it’s not.

“A good place to start with AR is where you have a reasonably high task complexity and, as a result, a pretty sophisticated staff, places where they have a really high mix of activities,” said Matt Kammerait, product marketing vice president at DAQRI, which manufactures a smart helmet designed for field engineers and introduced more streamlined smart glasses designed for plant work stations in December. “I think AR especially is the platform that’s going to transform how people and technology interact.”

Ryan subscribes to that idea, and has developed some guidelines for successfully weaving it into his manufacturing process:

  • Introduce it first in areas “where it creates the most value and (where) it can actually be subjective.” In some instances, that means helping workers become more efficient. In others, cutting down on errors or beefing up safety is the focus.
  • Balance the needs of workers against the capability of the AR solution. By its very name, AR is intended to provide a supplement to what we see and do, not replace folks on the floor.
  • Implement and test potential solutions only after fully defining use cases and culling data. More often than not, potential use cases wind up on the cutting room floor.

So much about AR is still being written, developed and tested that it can be hard to get a grip on its industrial possibilities. Not everybody has been deep in the process for five years like Ryan and NNS. Just like the National Association of Manufacturers and the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation can shed light on general best practices, the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance, or AREA, focuses on helping manufacturers who want to delve deeper into AR.

“Organizations are still a little uncertain about where to invest, providers are struggling to find customers, and technology readiness is a little bit unclear,” AREA executive director Mark Sage said. “It’s an irregular ecosystem.”

Sage said AREA is trying to foster “a much more developed ecosystem so people understand the best tools for the jobs, and companies and providers are speaking the same language so they can have a conversation about augmented reality.”

And once you have a plan in place, you can turn more attention toward the fun stuff: all the gear.