According to a 2020 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, manufacturing businesses expect efficiency gains over the next five years, attributable to digital transformation. Today, with assisted/augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies making inroads in this market, manufacturers are finding ways of incorporating it into their everyday practices.
The ongoing digital transformation of the manufacturing and logistics industries is creating more immersive and engaging work environments, using increasingly sophisticated technologies in a bid to improve processes, connect field workers, enhance safety and deliver training.
Using the 2020 survey is the perfect way to illustrate this point because it was 2020, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic that sped this process up. A sudden change in how things were done, forced manufacturing leaders to educate themselves as buyers, enabling them to articulate clear problems that needed urgent solutions. These same educated buyers then forced manufacturing technology vendors to shift away from just selling technology, and toward selling solutions – that is, focused products that solve for a specific need.
Such a focused product would be the wearable technology of Smart glasses. Overall, the increased use of AR (assisted/augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) in the manufacturing arena was a perfect solution – suited as it was to enable remote support and cross collaboration. The technology connects frontline workers in ways that have not been previously possible. So, despite increasing portions of the workforce staying at home to work remotely, field workers are still supported in their on-site role and achievements, like automating processes, streamlining operations, resolving technical issues, and reducing training time.
Enterprise smart glasses adoption is not only predicted to grow in the coming years, but that growth will accelerate as spending starts to transition away from mobile augmented reality and towards head-worn, hands free, augmented reality. Indeed, 67% of manufacturers from our own research said they were likely to deploy smart glasses within next three years, with improved information sharing and collaboration (48%) and hands free functionality (47%) being the main reasons behind this decision.
Why smart glasses in particular? Firstly, smart glasses equipped with a ‘See-What-I-See’ functionality can allow an onsite technician/engineer who needs to make a safety or time-critical decision, to connect with a wider pool of remote experts and receive valuable support and guidance to complete a task. Secondly, additional capabilities from AR smart glasses can be accessed wherever and whenever they are needed, without disrupting the mechanic’s workflow. Thirdly, the rise of edge computing, the increased convergence of physical assets into digital assets and the integration of 4G/5G connectivity will also play a role in making smart glasses more adoptable.
Why should any apps use edge computing? Technologies such as AR will leverage integrated mobile broadband (4G/5G) and edge computing for adoption at scale. The high bandwidth of the latest network technologies enables the deployment of fully collaborative working use cases. Meanwhile, the move to the edge brings the intelligence closer to the end-user, providing key savings in time of execution and network resources usage, while simultaneously allowing to perform tasks without internet access at all.
With 4G now ubiquitous, and both 5G and edge computing on an upward trajectory, solutions such as AR smart glasses are predicted to see some major opportunities in the manufacturing space over the next year. Use cases to take note of include:
1. Remote support
Remote support would involve a technician/engineer wearing AR smart glasses and an expert or trainer in a different location being able to see what they are seeing. This would enable experts in any location to give live directions to the technician/engineer on site, to offer training, advice on machine repairs, constructing new parts or even cleaning parts.
Not only could this reduce unplanned downtime and carbon emissions from the cost of travel, it is also cheaper and addresses many of the skills shortages currently facing manufacturing industries. Experts that don’t need to travel onsite can speak with multiple workers in a day, thus allocating their resources more efficiently and creating big returns in the process.
2. Real-time collaboration
Sometimes, multiple technicians/engineers need to collaborate on single objects so being able to do this virtually would bring huge benefits. For example, if a virtual object needs a team of designers to work on it in real time, the use of smart glasses can assist greatly by enabling real-time sharing of 3D models and annotations. In the manufacturing sector, in particular, this will have huge benefits for companies that try to reduce unnecessary travel and accelerate their development cycle.
Much has been said about using AR to transform training in the manufacturing industry – and rightly so. OEMs could feasibly send machinery with building instructions loaded onto AR smart glasses, allowing any employee at the other end to assemble it. While it would require the upfront investment of equipping all new recruits with AR smart glasses, the savings in the long term have the potential to be enormous.
In manufacturing plants, technologies such as AR smart glasses have seen an uptick in adoption in the last two years. Incidents which were introduced by lockdowns and reduced global travel meant that businesses were forced to evolve at a faster rate. These circumstances resulted in companies looking for increasingly sophisticated collaboration tools to improve communication over the long-term. AR smart glasses can enhance the new environment of hybrid working (which is here to stay) by enabling faster and better connections, that work within the changing dynamics of a post-pandemic world.
By Ronald Ravel, Director B2B at Dynabook South Africa