Augmented reality and engineering projects03 December 2020

Augmented reality (AR) has been on the ‘emerging technology trend’ list for many years, but initially saw a slow adoption curve. However, a variety of real-world applications are beginning to emerge. Has the time come to take AR seriously? By Martin Keenan, technical director of electromechanical and digital product supplier Avnet Abacus

AR was originally pitched as a technology to change the world we live in, as well as almost every industrial process you care to mention. But in a pre-industry 4.0 age, AR was just another experimental, pilot technology, albeit one that was heavily explored by big-name brands, from Alphabet to Alibaba, Facebook to Ford. Often a term used interchangeably but incorrectly with VR (virtual reality), AR is arguably far more applicable to industrial internet-of-things (IIoT) applications than VR, enabling a user to view the world around them – often through glasses or by using a smartphone or tablet camera and screen – with an overlay of digital information.

Arguably one of the initial speed bumps to AR adoption was the lack of usable devices: bulky glasses with poor connectivity and short battery life. but with the ability of any modern smartphone or tablet to offer a basic heads-up display experience, and huge improvements in the size and battery life of AR glasses, the floodgates are beginning to open.

Enterprise-scale incumbents such as Epson, Microsoft, Vuzix and Samsung are being challenged by a host of upstarts to push the overall industrial wearable market in Europe from $943.7 million in 2019 to $2,762.6 million by 2027 at a CAGR of 14.7% from 2020 to 2027 (source: www.is.gd/ziguse).

DELIVERY IN THE FIELD

The information overlay offered by AR is particularly useful when dealing with the large volumes of data generated in IIoT deployments, and in particular in industrial maintenance scenarios (see also www.is.gd/osoher, an Avnet article). Predictive maintenance has long been a staple potential benefit of IIoT, enabling complex manufacturing lines to minimise downtime and run as effectively as possible. IIoT sensors can monitor changes in vibration from heavy machinery, or alert when acoustic frequencies change in a bearing or when temperatures begin to rise inside a pump.

When a local engineer arrives at the alert site, the sensor data is overlaid on top of the physical device, as well as access to historical maintenance information, quick troubleshooting guides if applicable, and contact information for manufacturer support. With some long-standing stats indicating that maintenance personnel spend up to 50% of their time searching for information, AR can be a valuable data delivery mechanism and filter, supplying the exact information needed at the correct time.

For example, Italian AR startup Scotty has recently begun offering a SaaS (Software as a Service) AR tool for maintenance purposes, using Microsoft HoloLens as the in-field device (www.is.gd/eviyaj). The service also allows customers to record maintenance sessions and play them back later as training or demo reference tools.

More internationally, US-based Fieldbit’s solution presents field engineers with a sophisticated mix of data, from trip hazards to sensor data, as well as access to digitised repair manuals. The company has deployed the system with Veolia Water Technologies, a transnational water treatment specialist firm.

Meanwhile, in China, CITIC Telecom CPC recently announced the deployment of AR glasses and a head-up-display for field engineers to speed up maintenance and troubleshooting. By streaming ‘real-time intelligence, troubleshooting logs, graphics and encrypted data from back-end systems to on-site engineers’ the company projects productivity improvements of up to 50%.

INSTANT REMOTE EXPERTISE

There is also the useful fact that AR effectively allows skilled technicians to operate remotely, able to troubleshoot specific issues effectively, but without the time overhead of physically attending different locations. This offers a substantial time and cost saving, as well as delivering the best expertise available to industrial customers in the shortest time possible, all of which goes into the overall drive towards maximum efficiency and improved overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

Renault Trucks is adopting augmented reality across all its 71 dealers in the UK and Ireland. Optiview powered by Librestream (pictured) utilises Onsight remote expert software and RealWear HMT-1 head mounted tablets. The combined solution enables Renault Trucks to provide a hands-free remote support service for increased workshop productivity and customer uptime. Using Optiview, Renault Trucks’ technicians can immediately collaborate with technical support via their computer or mobile devices. Together, the teams see live video, talk, and draw on-screen to expedite asset inspections, equipment diagnostics and warranty claims.

Andrew Walker, technical and warranty manager at Renault Trucks UK & Ireland, says: “Prior to Optiview, approximately 10-15% of warranty-based service calls required one of our specialised field engineers to travel to the dealership. With this new service, we expect a five-fold reduction of in-person visits, resulting in significant time savings for all parties – operators, dealers and Renault Trucks.

Across the North Sea, Helsinki-based Wärtsilä Seals and Bearings tested the practicalities of introducing AR monitoring and maintenance via smart glasses by installing the system on a TT-Lines ferry sailing between Sweden and Germany. The successful test used a deck-based LTE antenna and hands-free AR glasses to relay video advice from experts, providing rapid troubleshooting and technical advice to conduct inspections and even on-site machining while at sea.

In the USA, HVAC firm Lee Company, uses AR to help its field technicians with repairs by linking them directly with a central team of experts. The experts can see what the field agent is seeing – vital information such as the condition of the equipment – and guide the specific fixes required. Critically, Lee Company estimates that it saves $500 per technician per month in travel costs, and produces a ROI of $20 on every dollar invested in AR.

CREATING SPECIALISED TRAINING

The flipside of AR use ‘in the field’ with IIoT is one step back from the front line of maintenance, in training. By logging and recording the details of live AR-assisted repair jobs, companies can train up new technicians on real-world problems, as well as educate internal and external stakeholders when a particularly brilliant solution is delivered. The combination of AR and an ever-growing library of detailed ‘fixes’ allows common challenges to be templated and standard solutions tried before contacting the engineer at all. That isan impressive feat in the rarefied world of specialised industrial machinery (see also Avnet article: www.is.gd/ahuxum).

An oft-quoted early adopter of AR manufacturing tools, Boeing, has conducted a number of AR field trials, one involving the assembly of a 30-component aircraft wing. Trainees using AR were found to be 35% faster than those using traditional 2D drawings and documentation, and the ability of first-time trainees to correctly assemble the wing rose to 90% when using AR.

CONCLUSION

AR in a business context is very much the partner to IIoT, and the outstanding human interface to use in conjunction with real-time data flows that easily overwhelm traditional logging and capture methods. As a tool to render complex data into an easily-understandable, visual form it has few peers, and viewed through the lens of maximising operational efficiency, minimising wasted time and cost, AR is clearly a powerful choice for smart manufacturers in a wide range of verticals. IIoT and AR are a partnership that is here to stay.

Martin Keenan

Related Companies
Avnet Abacus
Renault Trucks UK Ltd
Wartsila UK Ltd

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