Taking manufacturing into a new decade though augmented reality

Visualizing a new world for the industry

by Karen Hornberger, Channel Manager – Industry Solutions

As we enter a new decade, augmented reality (AR) is shifting the very fabric of manufacturing as we know it, taking us into a new plane of existence for how companies use technology to enhance safety and efficiency in day-to-day operations. While virtual reality (VR) provides an immersive experience, augmented reality enables operators to interact with applications in their natural environment. For these reasons, manufacturers are beginning to adopt AR in the next evolution of the smart factory to advance how they design their products and respond to operational needs on the factory floor.

A new layer of reality

For those who are aware of AR technology, many know it as it’s applied in the consumer space. In retail, for example, customers can use their mobile phones or a tablet to visualize how furniture would look in their home before they buy. Through the device camera, an app can digitally render and layer an image of furniture into place as if it were there in real life.

This layering of computer-generated content over a real-world environment is the basis of AR. It enables the user to still be present in their physical environment while interacting with digital elements, whether that’s to be entertained, guided, or instructed.

Augmented reality in the manufacturing space

Augmented reality enables a user to maintain visual awareness of their environment. This is vital in manufacturing where factory floor machinery and moving parts can be hazardous. Through an AR headset, workers can maintain sight of the actual equipment they’re working on while also viewing overlaid text or instructions relevant to their current task.

Data from factory equipment such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), IoT sensors, and barcodes can be integrated into the AR experience to deliver up-to-the-moment information to the worker.

For example, a floor supervisor that holds his tablet up to assembly line robotics could instantly see their temperature, time in operation, maintenance status, and more. While this is possible with virtual reality, it may not be ideal in situations where a fully immersive environment may not be warranted such as in simulation training or disaster preparedness. AR may offer more flexibility both for the plant and the users.

Another benefit comes in the form of training and remote assistance. Experienced workers can help shorten the learning curve for new and cross-trained employees – a benefit that may also help to reduce the pressure companies feel to resolve the shortage of qualified workers in manufacturing. Through the adoption of AR, manufacturing leaders can provide the technology to close the gap between master and novice and possibly provide a less stressful work environment.

In some cases, a live video feed is shared with an off-site technician or supervisor to display what the worker is seeing. They can then digitally highlight parts and draw guiding lines to assist the employee in a task. This not only creates a safer, more efficient work environment, it gives less experienced employees much needed hands-on training with minimal risk.

In addition, AR is a valuable tool to both help improve the turnaround time for maintenance requests and reduce downtime for factory equipment. Predictive maintenance protocols in the smart factory can significantly impact the likelihood of equipment being down; however, in the event of an unexpected change on the factory floor or of equipment failure, AR enables plant managers to connect a worker with a technician who can remotely walk them through making the repair.

Augmented reality systems can be used for a variety of concepting, designing, and prototyping purposes. Complex assemblies, for example, can be digitally visualized in the planned environment before sacrificing tangible resources and manpower. Gaining a better, more accurate preview of conceptual pieces or mock-ups cuts down on the number of prototype sprints needed to ensure the final product works, saving time and cutting costs. This ability can be continued through day-to-day production to help ensure that complex production has the attention it needs.   

How to build a network for the best augmented reality experience

A quality augmented reality system is very data-intensive. As a leader in innovation, AT&T develops accessible network technology designed to support the tools of the future. AR not only brings heavy bandwidth requirements, but it is often used to carry sensitive, proprietary information that must be highly secure, yet easily accessible. Leading network technology is putting solutions in place for manufacturers to make augmented reality a business reality in the next stage of digital transformation.

One of these technologies is edge-computing. This empowers users to bring data-processing closer to the source of use. Decreasing the distance data has to travel means lower latency and greater bandwidth available for solutions like augmented reality. This also keeps your data local, addressing many of the cybersecurity needs often faced in the manufacturing space.

Additionally, edge-to-edge capabilities that harness the power of the cloud help ensure that your network is optimized and all your various IoT endpoints are communicating and working together virtually seamlessly.

The great, dawning light coming over the horizon that will provide even more possibilities for the evolution of AR is the power of 5G. As factories grow and become more sophisticated and more bandwidth-demanding data is carried across a network, manufacturers must be able to ensure their operations remain in sync – for machines, workers, and workers with the machines. 5G’s high capacity flexibility, and low-latency, and speed make it a natural choice to support technologies such as augmented reality.

A network for the future

Augmented reality stands to bring unprecedented change to manufacturing companies by enabling users to envision and enhance their production experience. Expanding the ways humans can interact with machinery for design, operations, training, and repairs, opens up new levels of operational efficiency, speed, and opportunity across the industry.

Coupled with a highly secure network and other existing and emerging tech that brings the smart factory to life, AR is poised to become crucial for manufacturers to adopt remain competitive both in the industry and in competing for top talent that may desire to stay with the company.