The Daqri smart glasses

Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy? AR Hits Manufacturing

Jan. 31, 2017
Manufacturers of all sizes are starting to explore augmented reality, and some have been building for years toward a full-scaled deployment. But is the tech actually making an industrial difference yet?

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.”

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.

Explore Your Options

The second generation of smart glasses is starting to ship, and most of the models are “really addressing the lack of maturity that the first-gen devices had,” said Jay Kim, chief strategy officer at Upskill, which develops focused software systems for smart glasses and recently changed its name after six years as APX Labs. “This is really the first generation of glasses that is in position to be deployed by the thousands. A lot of this is backed by the fact that you’ve seen market entry over the last year by big names like Intel, Microsoft and Google.”

Google, of course, was the first company to enter the mainstream AR  conversation thanks to its Glass. Kim, Kammerait and Barrie Vince, software architect at Plex Systems, all lamented the lost potential of that prototype, which Google stopped producing in January 2015. (The company did file a patent for a new version less than a year later.)

Glass remains a major player in the smart glasses market, one of the top three devices in market share along with the Recon Jet Pro and the Vuzix M100. But there are more options than ever now, with the monocular Vuzix M300 and RealWear HMT-1, and the binocular Epson BT-300 and -350 all expected to ship this year.

“The (Microsoft) HoloLens effectively singlehandedly unlocked the mixed reality market for the masses,” Kim said. “By combining good-enough optics and a whole suite of sensors that can effectively characterize your environment, it has unlocked an entirely new way of thinking and a new way of sensing the environment.”

While smart glasses receive the bulk of the headlines and attention—again, thanks to Glass and, more recently in the virtual reality realm, the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Samsung Gear VR—smart helmets have established a niche in the market. And tablets, of course, are still king.

“Tablets are it,” Ryan said. “I have not found a pair of safety glasses I would want to put on somebody for eight hours a day. There’s an expectation in the market that you need to be augmenting something all the time, and that’s not at all true. Augmented reality is competing with paper documentation, and nobody would walk around with paper in front of their face. They would put it down, because their brain still functions, and they can remember what they just saw. You don’t need a head-mounted display in most cases.

“That said, I have them, we’re working with them in our lab, and we’re trying to understand what to do with them.”

And even after the madness of CES, more new models are expected to be released later this year. No matter if you prefer tablets, glasses or helmets, the hardware choices could soon take as much time to sort through as the initial planning and testing.

Different AR devices offer different benefits. Glasses—like the DAQRI smart glasses pictured above, the Vuzix M100, the Recon Jet Pro and Google Glass—are designed to remain at work stations, while smart helmets tend to be fitted for a single worker.

And Explore Your Goals

For some manufacturers, like NNS, augmented reality will be used primarily to replace paper.

Paul Boris, vice president of manufacturing industries for GE Digital and a recent addition to the board of directors at Vuzix, recently finished a wearables challenge with the help of Upskill. He received about 130 different submissions.

“Half a dozen or so were bizarre,” Boris said. “But for most of them, what we found is that there are three things that you do with them. You either look at things and get instructions on how to act, you look at machines or devices and get real-time feedback on those assets, or you phone a friend and create some remote interaction.”

The scope of his vision for the technology, though, is far wider in scope.

“I like the gadgets, I like the tools, I like the devices. I think they’re key to augmenting that space for an operator and letting them function effectively, but I think the biggest impact we can have with the Industrial Internet of Things and these devices in combination is augmenting that entire space, making every action more effective and more aligned with the business objectives. That’s a bigger view, maybe, but that’s where I try to stay focused.”

And Kammerait, the DAQRI VP, pitched an idea that could blend AR and workforce—along with the narrowing of the skills gap and the impending exodus of manufacturing workers—for the foreseeable future.

“The old way of solving problems was to have a 30-year expert who had essentially seen most permutations or most potential tasks or problems, and then to have somebody right next to them in training who can become the old hat. But what we’ve seen is with the bifurcation of the workforce, the person standing next to them, instead of having 25 years of experience typically has three or four. There’s this big knowledge gap. There are fewer people who have those 20-year apprenticeships and need access to information in a totally different way.

“The good news is that a lot of those people are digital natives, so they’re consuming content in a very different way. … Think of it as an access layer for everything that you could potentially know, all that digital information that you have access to but that you don’t know inherently because you haven’t been through it before. What I really see AR doing … is really erasing that barrier and putting that knowledge as close as possible to the point of use.”

How will you use AR over the next year, or two, or five? Will it provide another tool for your workers? Will it help train those workers? Will the tech help attract more young people to industry? No matter what solutions you aim for, it will be important to remember that augmented reality really is a technology focused on people.

“It’s not robotics, it’s not automation, it’s not taking people’s jobs,” Ryan said. “It’s making people better at what they do and making them more efficient. This is about making people’s lives better, not about them replacing them.”

About the Author

Matt LaWell | Staff Writer

Staff writer Matt LaWell explores news in manufacturing technology, covering the trends and developments in automation, robotics, digital tools and emerging technologies. He also reports on the best practices of the most successful high tech companies, including computer, electronics, and industrial machinery and equipment manufacturers.

Matt joined IndustryWeek in 2015 after six years at newspapers and magazines in West Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, a season on the road with his wife writing about America and minor league baseball, and three years running a small business. He received his bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from Ohio University.

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