The way we work is changing. While businesses tackle the challenges of increasingly competitive markets, the workforce needs to constantly adapt to new tools, changing processes and different work environments.
Emerging technology is transforming the industrial workplace. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) improve automation, data driven insights and operational efficiency. However, the technology that holds the most potential for creating our future workplace is Augmented Reality (AR).
This page explores the future of the industrial workplace and the role of Work Augmentation and Remote Collaboration based on AR technology. We take a close look at how businesses will work tomorrow by connecting their workforce with information and knowledge today - using Enterprise Augmented Reality.
Before looking into the future, let’s see where we are now.
While we are surrounded by innovative technology, the full digitization of the industrial workplace is yet to come. Today most workers continue to use outdated tools and old documentation.
Physical handbooks and manuals remain the go-to source of information although they are difficult to understand and out of date quickly. Even as pdf or app on mobile, product information for work instructions and trainings is still mainly available as text and in 2D. Especially young generations are used to more user-friendly digital tools from other areas of life and demand the same approach at work.
"Employees desire more flexible work scenarios. Remote work options challenge conventional thinking about how to foster effective connections and collaboration. Enterprise architecture and technology innovation leaders responsible for the digital workplace should use VR and AR to fill these gaps." - Gartner Research
Switching from the workforce back to business, what are the overarching challenges industrial enterprises are facing today? And how does Augmented Reality help businesses solve them?
In times where travel restrictions, closed facilities and social distancing are the new normal, industrial enterprises need to find ways to keep the business running.
While laptop, mobile and business software allow office workers to continue business-as-usual from home, the situation is different for the hands-on industrial sector. In manufacturing as well as service and support, specialists are required on site to ensure machinery runs smoothly and fix errors.
As this in-person collaboration is no longer possible, industrial businesses turn to Remote Support and Work Augmentation to continue to enable their customers and train their employees. By introducing Enterprise AR solutions to their operations, they do not only ensure business continuity but also accelerate workflows and save cost.
Even when operations are running, high inefficiency can be time consuming and therefore also impact profitability.
When workers need to spend too much time searching for information, it delays their actual task to assemble, operate or service machines and equipment. In field service it can take days to send an engineer to remote facilities, even in times with no travel restrictions.
Consequently, manufacturers face delays and downtimes which in return increases cost. To give an example: A minute of downtime costs up to $22,000 in the automotive industry.
By connecting AR and IoT, businesses feed real-time information into step-by-step guides and make data visible directly at the machine. Using Work Augmentation solutions on mobile devices or smart glasses, frontline workers can identify and solve problems quicker as relevant information is visualized in their field of view. In addition, an integrated remote support tool allows them to collaborate with experts.
Although emerging technologies are often discussed as a potential threat to people’s jobs, only 6% of European and US companies expect their workforce to shrink over the next years as a result of automation and AI.
In fact, Augmented Reality can be a job source more than a job substitute, and can also assist in addressing the growing manufacturing skills gap. This is an important learning for businesses in times where talent shortage is increasing constantly. The Manpower Talent Shortage Survey of 2018 revealed that 46% of US businesses are affected by skill shortages. In Germany the proportion is even higher, at 51%.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has made talent shortages even more visible and threatened business continuity and operations efficiency at the same time, it also created an urgency to address these challenges. As a result, we saw a shift towards a new Remote Economy.
Accelerated by the global health crisis, the world has seen a transformation from ‘in-person’ to ‘on-demand’ across sectors. In the new Remote Economy, the industrial enterprise enables their employees to collaborate remotely and access the information they need from anywhere at any time.
"COVID-19 truly has accelerated digital transformation, helping drive long-term systemic change to how we work every day. Remote experts working anywhere in the world will now seamlessly connect with multiple frontline workers to keep critical operations running 24/7." - Andrew Chrostowski, Realwear
Traditional handbooks and manuals are still a go-to source of information in the industrial work environment. Whether printed or as a pdf file, their content is difficult to understand as it’s text-based and in a 2D format. Information is often not up to date and spread across multiple resources.
In a nutshell: Workers either try to memorize crucial knowledge or spend a lot of time searching for it. As a result, processes are slow, and the risk of human error is high.
The digital manual helps businesses accelerate their workflows in operations, maintenance, and training while reducing error rates significantly. Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas and how Augmented Reality enables businesses to convert from traditional to digital manuals with Work Augmentation.
Image: AR-based commissioning for industrial 3D printing equipment at EOS
As manufacturing equipment is becoming more complex, manuals explaining how to operate this machinery need to be simple and easy to understand. AR guides simplify complex information by combining step-by-step instructions with 3D animations of essential work steps and making both available in context with the machine. Workers no longer search for the right instructions to assemble and operate the equipment, they have them immediately at hand. All are accessible via mobile devices or AR glasses as they stand next to the machine.
Image: AR guides for service technicians at IDEAL-Werk
Maintaining industrial machinery can be complicated but often follows a fix procedure. When specialists are the gatekeepers of that knowledge and are not available, frontline workers rely on traditional manuals. The digital manual makes the specialist knowledge easy to understand as it’s presented in a more visual format compared to 2D text-based manuals. In the digital manual Work Augmentation combines simple instructions with AR-animations that are displayed as overlay on the real equipment.
Image: Technical training guides for Medical Diagnostic Systems at Roche Diagnostics
When it comes to onboarding new employees or training existing ones, businesses invest a lot of time and budget. Trainees and instructors are required to travel for in-person trainings at company facilities or training centers.
AR training is more engaging and more successful compared to traditional training formats. Unlike classroom trainings interactive training guides show content visually and engage workers in a 3D environment, in the same setup they are performing their tasks in afterwards. In this use case Work Augmentation combines clear step-by-step instructions for complex workflows with images, videos or animations that prepare the trainee for the real job.
With a training setup that is much closer to reality than the chalk and talk technique, trainees can grasp knowledge 50% faster. The digital training guides based on Work Augmentation are available on mobile devices and smart glasses and therefore make training materials accessible at any time.
"The goal of digital transformation is not to become a digital company. Instead, for industrial companies to capitalize on digital technologies to defend and advance their competitive advantage." - Jim Heppelmann, PTC
In the new Remote Economy age the impact of AR technology goes beyond digitizing the traditional instruction manual. Industrial manufacturers can modernize their entire production process using Enterprise AR solutions.
How does Work Augmentation improve manufacturing?
Image: Onboarding of medical device operators at Medtronic
When training operators for their job on the production floor, efficiency and accuracy are crucial. Training needs to be fast as every minute that operators are not on the production floor increases cost. At the same time compromising training quality can boost error rates as workers are more likely to make mistakes when they are not trained properly.
Assembly instructions using Work Augmentation can tackle both challenges at the same time. They speed up training while improving its quality. Immersive assembly instructions with AR show clearly step by step how to assemble the product. The digital instructions require no setup and operators can walk through them in their own time which significantly speeds up the process.
Image: IoT & AR Suite by Software AG and RE'FLEKT
IoT platforms allow industrial manufacturers to monitor every step of the production process in real-time. Machines and equipment sensors deliver live data to an IoT dashboard such as Cumulocity IoT from Software AG. Any errors or other deviations from a smooth production process are reported in the dashboard as they occur. If needed, engineers are sent to the manufacturing site to fix the problem. While live data as part of the IoT dashboard improves asset monitoring, the field engineer relies on outdated methods for error diagnostics and resolution which is time-consuming and prone to errors.
This is where Work Augmentation with AR technology comes in. It allows manufacturers to visualize the IoT dashboard at the machine via mobile devices. Using AR applications that display live data as part of their augmented content, engineers can rely on real-time information while maintaining or repairing the equipment. The data is embedded in the machine’s digital service guide that the engineer follows step by step. This approach reduces first-time fix rates by 40% and manufacturing downtimes by 30%.
While many stages in the product lifecycle are increasingly automated, quality control still involves humans. The quality of most physical products is assessed during a visual inspection.
Instead of replacing the worker, AR technology can significantly improve their manual inspection process. It can reveal faults in defective product components in no time as a technician walks through the digitized inspection process wearing AR glasses or using a tablet. The visual inspection is done by simply pointing the device camera to each inspection point. The application notifies the user within seconds whether the specific product component meets set quality standards or not. The AR-guided inspection reduces inspection times and delivers results in a digital format.
To summarize, key benefits of Work Augmentation in manufacturing include:
When talking about the workplace of the future and the role of Enterprise AR, it’s certainly not only about software. Choosing the right hardware to make your AR applications available to the workforce is equally important.
Hand-held devices such as mobile phones and tablets are widely used simply because they are available at the workplace already. However, it’s wearables like AR smart glasses that allow service technicians and other frontline workers to do their job hands-free.
Image: AR Remote Support for manufacturing at ERIKS
Let’s take a closer look at the differences between mobile devices and smart glasses when working with AR content.
While there is a range of different wearables competing on the list of best AR smart glasses and headsets 2021, not all of them are the right fit for the industrial work environment. For industrial businesses, it’s a good start to look at three different types.
Image: HMT-1 by Realwear
As the term suggests, smart glasses with a monoscopic view are head-mounted displays that only cover one eye. Devices such as the Vuzix M-series and Realwear HMT products allow the user to focus on the real environment while having additional information in their field of view without picking up a smartphone or tablet.
Image: Moverio BT-35E Smart Glasses by EPSON
The counterpart of the monoscopic device is of course a smart glass with stereoscopic vision that combines two displays. Covering both eyes this type of smart glass allows you to augment a bigger part of the user’s field of view. Examples include Epson Moverio or Vuzix Blade.
Image: HoloLens 2 by Microsoft
For the truly immersive AR experience it takes a holographic display that brings 3D holograms into the real world, such as Microsoft HoloLens 2.
Choosing the right AR glasses for your business highly depends on your use case. While monoscopic solutions can be a great fit for Remote Collaboration when a technician conducts a support video call hands-free via smart glasses, employee training on the other hand can benefit from a more immersive experience. For instance, when trainees explore complex machine party in 3D, including animations and text-based explanations of each part.
"As part of listening, and always learning, we heard strong demand for HoloLens 2 to operate in environments that have rigorous requirements or are regulated by industry certifications. (...) HoloLens 2 Industrial Edition will empower enterprises operating in regulated environments." - Charlie Han, Microsoft
While Enterprise AR helps businesses tackle today’s challenges in the new Remote Economy, it also creates the future workplace for the industrial workforce.
Work Augmentation and Remote Collaboration connect the worker with expertise by bringing knowledge and experts digitally to their workplace.