Systems like IFS’ augmented reality software could one day provide instant, heads-up insight into the inner workings of machines. Composite image of a prototype.

Technology: Augmented Reality on the Plant Floor

March 28, 2013
“Augmented reality will go a long way to help manufacturers cut down decision-making time and help support projects like product launches by allowing them to work virtually in an industrial environment.” - N.S. Bala, Wipro Technologies

Google, with its sci-fi inspired, slick Glass device, has finally brought augmented reality into the world. Well, almost.

Wielding a long-promised suite of augmented or mediated reality technologies, Glass—now tantalizingly close to public release—merges the physical world with the digital to, as enthusiasts say, free us from the downward gaze to our cell phones and re-engage with the world (without sacrificing our gadgetry).

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It is—or at least it promises to be—the first seamless merger of technology and reality.

As the company gears up for its product launch, videos of Glass’ capabilities have popped up across the web featuring mesmerizing point-of-view videos of skydivers and acrobats, hot air balloon rides and New Years in Times Square all recorded and enhanced by a host of high-tech features usually tied to a phone or PC.

They also show how otherwise mundane experiences like a trip to the airport can be enhanced by providing passengers with flight information, departure times, even highlighting the nearest power outlets.

While these videos have the public’s mind reeling, the interest of some manufacturing technology engineers is equally piqued.

Google Glass is expected for wide release some time in 2013. PHOTO: Google

Augmented Manufacturing

One such engineer, David Andersson, director of IFS Labs—the experimental R&D department of ERP vendor, IFS—has watched these Glass videos with particular interest.

“We started seeing these things on YouTube,” he recalls. “We were so enticed by them that we actually gave it a try ourselves. Which we successfully did—but we built an example of augmented reality where it would make sense to us in a business scenario.”

In Andersson’s model, augmented reality does more than just merge technology with reality; it pulls together real-time data, schematics, work orders and resources with the mobile functionality of smartphones and tablets. A kind of triumvirate of big data, mobility and industrial production.

“We imagined a technician sent out to service some windmills,” Andersson explains. “He holds up the phone and he can instantly see how much power each windmill is generating and which one he is there to service.”

One click on the screen, he says, and the tech “gets the skinny” on the specifics of the job order, data on the last service event, notes from the previous technician and just about anything else a user might want to program in.

While he cautions that the hardware necessary to run this software with the speed it requires is still a bit off, the project does highlight some of the very key elements of augmented reality and provides an idea of its future place in manufacturing technology.

“Manufacturing technology today is all about collaboration and speed,” notes N.S. Bala, senior vice president and global head of the Manufacturing and High-Tech business unit at global IT consulting group, Wipro Technologies. “Augmented reality will go a long way to help manufacturers cut down decision-making time and help support projects like product launches by allowing them to work virtually in an industrial environment.”

In his view, the technology is one of the most important high-tech trends emerging in the industry, one that may radically increase a manufacturer’s ability to release new products and new iterations of existing products at a much quicker pace.

“It’s not just technology for technology sake,” he says. “It can actually help increase the quality of your product.”

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