Augmented reality and the smart factory

How manufacturers use mixed reality tools to troubleshoot, increase efficiency and train employees. By Bryan Griffen

Characterized by a fusion of technologies that blur the lines between the physical and digital, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is spreading across the manufacturing world. As a component of this revolution, a growing number of suppliers are using augmented reality (AR) to improve operations in workforce training and equipment maintenance. AR is a technologically enhanced version of reality created by using technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device, such as smart goggles or a smartphone camera. The goggles are often voice-controlled, leaving wearers with both hands free.

Market research firm Statista estimates the AR market was worth USD $5.91 billion in 2018 and that it will reach more than $198.7 billion by 2025. The technology naturally has a stronghold in the video games and entertainment sector. Now, a growing number of players in the beverage industry, including household brands and large automated equipment manufacturers, are utilizing the technology to provide their employees and customers with virtual hands-on instruction for operating machinery, troubleshooting and conducting repairs.

In fact, 10 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have already begun exploring shopping and operation applications for AR, according to “Building the Business Case for Augmented Reality” (published on Cognizant.com). Gartner predicts that by 2020, 20 percent of large enterprises will evaluate and adopt AR, virtual reality and mixed reality solutions as part of their digital transformation strategy.

Training and Maintenance

The “model-based digital twin” is an increasingly popular use for AR technology in manufacturing. The digital twin is a clone of the physical asset, providing a dynamic, self-teaching model to optimize performance in conjunction with an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platform. The combination of machine learning and physics-based modelling enables engineers to create entire AR experiences that show technicians how to service factory floor machines. Using the digital twin, a technician can repair a faulty device in record time and with greater accuracy (per “Augmented Reality is Energizing Smart Manufacturing” on Aberdeen.com).

In-person training can be expensive and requires that the equipment be readily available for student training. Companies can use AR tools to provide real-time visual guidance and can connect students with teachers without the cost and logistics of getting everyone in the same room. For example, Bosch Rexroth, a global provider of power units and controls used in manufacturing, uses an AR-enhanced visualization called Hägglunds InSight Live to demonstrate the design and capabilities of its smart, connected CytroPac hydraulic power unit. The AR application allows customers to see 3D representations of the unit’s internal pump and cooling options in multiple configurations and how the subsystems fit together.

Technicians can also take advantage of smart goggles’ video and photo recording abilities to keep track of progress and keep tabs on errors. Goggles can capture hands-free photos in seconds, and those images can be submitted to off-site teams for troubleshooting help.

In addition, AR technology can allow workers on the plant floor or in remote locations to monitor the health of manufacturing equipment, anticipating failures in production and preventing or minimizing subsequent downtime. This ability to predict errors helps to ensure nothing is going to interrupt or taint production – critical for tea and coffee products, which often consist of delicate flavour profiles or feature distinct qualities that customers expect, especially when purchasing premium brews or roasts. Access to this type of information also helps to improve the speed of changeovers, anticipating and providing solutions when production switches between different SKUs or various packaging formats and sizes.

Improving Productivity

Incorporating AR into industrial processes has proven to boost worker productivity. For example, General Electric (GE) healthcare warehouse workers use Skylight, an industrial augmented reality application platform from Upskill, to kit and completely pick list orders up to 46 percent faster, according to a GE Healthcare Case Study.

In GE’s application, Skylight connects to warehouse systems to get real-time information on an item location by connecting to smart warehouse systems. It then gives workers easy-to-read instructions for where to locate items throughout the building. The previously paper-based process, where workers flipped through printed orders to locate parts and waded through depleted stock locations, is now efficient and digitized.

In another case, Lockheed Martin used Microsoft HoloLens headsets to view holographic renderings of an aircraft’s parts and the instructions on how to assemble them. The HoloLens offers mixed reality solutions to increase communication and improve efficiency. The AR technology reduced assembly time by 30 percent, and digitizing the workflow helped Lockheed Martin increase engineering efficiency to 96 percent (per an IntellectSoft.net blog entitled, “How Brands Like Boeing Use Augmented Reality in Manufacturing”).

Returning to the idea of the digital twin, beverage manufacturers can utilize AR technologies to test the validity of products before committing to them. Digital product models can compute a range of formulas and recipes and predict potential information for that particular blend, such as nutritional content or compliance with FDA restrictions. Having this full picture prior to implementation can confirm whether a product is going to fit into existing production methods – a valuable “try-on” tool for tea and coffee brands producing multiple roasts or brews in one plant and that want to experiment with new flavours or varieties based on customer demand.

Similarly, beverage manufacturers can create digital plant models to virtually test production methods or habits for new machinery, examining general process or specific functions and assessing viability. Leveraging these simulations can help inform plant design and significant equipment investments. For tea and coffee manufacturers, that foresight can also provide assurance that a specific production setup or process is going to meet unique needs, such as strict adherence to food safety requirements or flexibility for short runs of seasonal and small-batch offerings.

These case studies make a strong argument for AR’s ability to improve manufacturing operations, but manufacturers still may wonder if augmented reality is worth the investment.

Beverage companies considering investing in AR should be strategic, approaching the opportunity by establishing the bottom-line value first. Approaching digital with a clear vision and a phased roadmap, and with a focused ecosystem of technology partners, will help maximize the return on investment in new technology. Workforce training and equipment maintenance applications for AR have the potential to help companies get ahead of the capabilities gap and build the culture to sustain that lead.

While the era of AR technology is well underway, new technologies and solutions continue to emerge for beverage brands looking to leverage digital advancements.

  • Bryan Griffen is director, industry services, at PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, based in Reston, Virginia

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