Immersive Technology in Manufacturing
While industry-wide efforts continue to drive the development and adoption of fully automated “lights-out” manufacturing systems, a significant portion of activities involving manufacturing still require human skill and dexterity. The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in manufacturing can help humans perform these tasks with precision and efficiency.
Immersive technologies have outgrown their origins, from works of fiction to mainstream applications now appearing in the real world. The advent and ubiquity of smartphones hastened the spread of these technologies among the public. While capturing the attention of the global public, they have also attracted the interest of businesses that capitalize on people's fascination with immersive technology. This has led businesses to develop immersive technologies in customer-centric applications, for example, the use of immersive technologies in digital marketing, i.e. virtual reality and augmented reality, is increasingly being adopted by companies large and small. But now, as the novelty begins to wear off among consumers, businesses are turning their attention inward and designing applications of these technologies to improve their critical business operations. The use of technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality in manufacturing is an example of the shift in immersive technologies from consumer-centric to employee- and process-centric applications. Immersive technologies are proving to be a natural fit for manufacturing processes due to their ability to enhance users’ visibility into the process and provide them with the right information at the right time, as evidenced by the implementation of immersive technologies by major manufacturers.
The Need for Immersive Technology in Manufacturing
Since the introduction of automation and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), manufacturing processes have become less and less dependent on human labor. A growing number of manufacturing plants are working on what is known in industry jargon as "lights-out" manufacturing, which is particularly useful in areas that require extreme precision and minimal need for customization, variation, and inspection. Industries that make sense for lights-out manufacturing include materials and chemical processing plants, oil refineries, food processing and packaging, and large-scale manufacturing plants for simple products.
However, most products manufactured today are constantly changing as customer needs change. Therefore, manufacturing needs to be highly flexible, but equally or even less tolerant of non-conformities. Although eventually, these processes will be automated through the use of general purpose robots, for now they will require the dexterous human hand and the decision-making capabilities of the human brain. Unlike general-purpose robots with superhuman information processing capabilities, humans cannot process large amounts of information quickly enough to make decisions based on all available information. They cannot sense or see hidden patterns like AI-based systems, so human workers need to assist in performing different tasks involved in the manufacturing process, from initial design to final inspection.
Applications of Virtual and Augmented Reality in Manufacturing
The adoption of virtual and augmented reality in manufacturing, while still in its infancy, has proven to be a major game changer for manufacturing players. It helps manufacturing processes become more efficient by increasing worker productivity and factory utilization, and even aids in design improvements.
There is usually a lot of planning and design work going on before a product is produced. Functional product design is the essence of product quality and a key driver of product value, and manufacturers place great emphasis on getting the design right. Traditionally, designers have used two-dimensional computer-aided design models to test and try out products that are three-dimensional in nature. For products that must be tested in real time, designers typically use physical prototypes to test product designs. These are hard to prototype, and even harder to redesign for experimentation and retesting. In addition to being expensive, it also slows time to market (TTM) because physical prototypes require multiple reworks of the model, so each iteration takes time to physically recreate the prototype.
Through virtual reality, designers can conceive products in three-dimensional space and test those products in a simulated environment until the design is completed. In addition to minimizing time-to-market, virtual reality provides the ability to test products under expected conditions and identify design flaws that cannot be highlighted using traditional testing methods. This ensures that the products produced are perfect by design and minimizes the possibility of product recalls and other adverse consequences of product failure.
Manufacturing operations need to be agile to keep up with the changing demands of the market and customers. To achieve this, they need to be able to make decisions quickly, but only after a thorough and detailed analysis of the information available. However, the volume of data that needs to be analyzed in order to enable safe and effective decision-making is too great for decision-makers to easily process and understand. This causes delays in the decision-making process, which delays necessary actions, and ultimately has the opposite effect of agility. It is increasingly evident that using data visualization can enhance executive decision-making and ensure that not only answers to questions can be easily found, but also new ones that can drive higher performance and further growth can be discovered.
The use of virtual and augmented reality in manufacturing-related data visualization can speed up decision-making processes at all levels of a manufacturing organization, from high-level strategic decisions to key operational decisions.
Equipment failure is an issue that causes an unplanned interruption of production and requires an immediate response from the maintenance team. Sometimes, the maintenance team may not be around to restore the equipment to a fully functional state in time. Visualizing data related to the performance and health of manufacturing equipment can enable maintenance teams to identify equipment health issues that often go unnoticed. Using AR devices to guide amateurs while addressing these issues can ensure production facilities are running without too many extended downtimes, maximizing plant and equipment utilization.
According to Yi Ke's technical documentation, quality inspection is an important part of the manufacturing process. As organizations strive to maximize productivity, they also emphasize raising standards of quality and consistency of products. To ensure high product quality, human quality inspectors often inspect hundreds of units to find defective units, in addition to automated inspection methods. This caused inspectors to miss subtle indicators of failure due to staff constraints. Combining augmented reality with artificial intelligence and sensor technology can clarify even the slightest deviations on a manufacturing unit, enabling higher product quality standards.
For manufacturing employees, on-the-job training is a must to perform their duties most effectively and efficiently. This process takes time, and deploying new, inexperienced employees to perform critical operations can reduce the quality of work and even lead to safety concerns. Training new employees in a virtual reality environment allows them to gain experience and proficiency in performing their duties without compromising productivity, quality and safety.
The indispensability of virtual reality and augmented reality in manufacturing will become a common trend in the next few years, at least until high-performance and generally intelligent robots replace us. However, it is also possible that as these and other technologies improve to make it easier for humans to participate in manufacturing, we may not need robots for a long time after all.