The reality of augmented reality

By Allan Ferguson | March 2, 2018

Whether it’s using an app to visualize furniture in your home or playing Pokemon Go, augmented reality has begun to weave its way into our everyday lives. The power of this type of technology is tremendous. Not just for entertainment or convenience, augmented reality is set to become a powerful, disruptive technology in virtually every industry: manufacturing, industrial environments, transportation, or energy. So how do we get on board the augmented reality train, and ensure that we’re ready for the future?

First, let’s take a step back to define what we mean by virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual reality is an artificial digital environment that you are immersed into, replacing your actual environment—a computer-based simulation that can be interacted with using a computer and special equipment. In augmented reality, digital information is overlaid on your real-world environment. Importantly, it can understand the context of where you are and what you are doing. So, for example, imagine you are cooking in the kitchen using augmented reality. Not only could the technology help you to identify a recipe based on the ingredients that you have, but it could recognize where you are in the process as you move through a recipe, step-by-step, telling you what to do next.

Both virtual and augmented reality technologies are suited to assist with different types of problems in business today. Virtual reality is ideal for immersing a worker in an environment that either has not been built yet or is inaccessible due to location or safety. Augmented reality, on the other hand, enhances the delivery of information to the worker in the right physical location and at the right time.

Today, companies like Boeing are beginning to use augmented reality in their manufacturing facilities. They’re using hands-free augmented reality technology to provide workers with more accurate, explicit instructions. In the past, they would have had to switch focus to interpret 2D drawings or interactive 3D diagrams, either prior to or during the work activity. Now, the application of augmented reality improves efficiency and minimizes the risk of human error by delivering the information directly into the process of performing the activity. Studies conducted by Boeing on the implementation of this technology in certain parts of its facility have shown a 90 percent improvement in first-time quality and a 30 percent reduction in time. [i]

If Boeing can use augmented reality to build planes, why can’t we use it to design, build, or operate a nickel processing plant or a subway tunnel?

Virtual reality can create immersive learning environments, where staff can be trained using replicas of the physical environment. These replicas, accessible from all angles, allow workers to better understand and plan for tasks that may arise in the real-world environment, helping to increase the quality of the work. Downtime would be minimized as staff would have access to experts in real-time using augmented reality in a production environment. Imagine if a worker walking by a piece of equipment could be proactively informed that it is not functioning correctly. The technology would recognize where the worker was and would itself be connected to work order software. The worker could then investigate or create work orders or plans, and even access an expert should they require support. The augmented reality software could even connect to supplier warehousing and provide information on part availability or timing.

The benefits of this type of technology are vast for industries with high-risk areas of operation that are not easily accessed. The reactor core at a nuclear power plant. The furnace in a processing facility. The underground tunnels in live transit operations. Augmented reality could be used to make a digital mock-up of the environment and staff could simulate work in these risky operations before ever putting a worker in harm’s way. Staff could build contingency plans for emergency shutdowns and rehearse action plans. Simulations provided by augmented reality technology would allow workers to see a representation of the work environment from all positions and plan ahead. Or, once they’re on-site, a worker equipped with augmented reality technology could see overlayed warnings about areas that contain safety concerns, such as in-progress heavy lifts or mobile equipment.

What can we do today to prepare for a future that includes this technology? First, look for the business case. For opportunities to improve efficiency, productivity, or placement. Is there a process in your facility that is insufficient or would benefit from the ability to deliver data to a worker in situ? Or do you have trouble accessing trained experts for a certain type of equipment in your plant? Imagine needing fewer of these experts because they could be accessed for solutions remotely, in real-time, by on-site staff and resources.

The benefits of this type of technology could impact your bottom line. Improved access to data, delivered to workers when and where they need it, makes them more productive and efficient. It increases quality and improves safety, which ultimately saves costs.

The use of augmented or virtual reality is not foolproof and adoption of new technology always comes with risk. This risk can be minimized through planning and setting realistic goals. The long-term benefits of this technology will far outweigh the initial challenges of using it. And there’s an opportunity for us to unite to find ways to make these modern technologies work for us. Now is the time to be thinking and planning for a future that includes them.