This past summer, the “Pokémon Go” phenomenon gave millions of people their first real taste of augmented reality, or AR – the term for technology that overlays computer graphics over the real world.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is a huge fan of augmented reality, and companies like Microsoft and Google-backed startup Magic Leap are racing to build the first truly mainstream head-mounted augmented reality device.
But before a Microsoft HoloLens shows up under a Christmas tree, it will be much more likely to be worn on the factory floor, as augmented reality begins to infiltrate the manufacturing sector in a big way, starting with the critical task of maintenance and support.
It’s no secret that factories and all kinds of big industrial machines are getting more and more automated amid the rise of the Internet of Things, or IoT. All of those wired-up, connected-up machines are throwing off tons of data on stuff like power consumption, operating status, and last maintenance date.
What that approach lacks, though, is context, says Mike Campbell, Executive VP of industrial software firm PTC’s Vuforia augmented reality segment.
“The contextualization of IoT data is a big deal,” Campbell says. That’s where augmented reality could have a major part to play in the industrialization of the Internet of Things.
Vuforia’s approach is designed to be as simple for an industrial customer to use as possible.
Using the company’s flagship Vuforia Studio software, you make a series of “ThingMarks,” literally just sticker labels, that get slapped on pieces of big industrial machines, and that workers can scan with their phone or augmented reality headset using the Vuforia app.
Once the ThingMark is scanned, the app connects back up to the database and comes back with all the information currently available from that machine part. If you’re looking at, say, a pressure valve, a maintenance worker will see the temperature and pressure hovering around it.
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Sure, you can probably access that information from a database or app, figuring out which machines need which repairs ahead of time, which is a very powerful thing for keeping a factory or power plant running at full blast with little-to-no downtime.
That data, readily available from other sources, is just the tip of the iceberg, though, Campbell says. It also overlays a graphic showing how the pieces fit together, how to disassemble it, and what other pieces of the machine that part might connect to. It combines the physical world of the machine part with the digital world of the IoT-gleaned info.
Just being able to look at a machine, and say, yes, this is the one that needs work, and this is the work that needs doing, can vastly improve the speed with which work gets done, and thus operational efficiency of the whole enterprise.
“There’s so much value in visualizing information,” Campbell says.
It’s this kind of application that Microsoft is working on, too, with its HoloLens goggles.
“Being able to see what you’re trying to do” is “really powerful,” says Microsoft Azure IoT Director Sam George.
In September 2016, $45 billion elevator manufacturer ThyssenKrupp announced it would be arming its elevator field repair workforce with HoloLens. Much like what Campbell describes on the factory floor, these field service technicians can look at a piece of IoT-connected elevator equipment and see what went wrong and how to fix it.
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With IoT sensors, ThyssenKrupp employees know when something is going to break before it actually does, and lets them bring the exact right tool for the job. And with HoloLens, they get the know-how to fix it piped straight to their eyeballs.
In all cases, things get fixed faster, machinery stays working longer, and the wheels of industry keep on turning.
“That’s a business revolution,” says George.
As an added bonus, with tools like Skype, remote support can literally see what the tech is seeing, addressing anything outside the scope of the system. That’s handy, says Campbell, when you have aging workers with incredible valuable knowledge who may not be so willing or able to go out in the field anymore.
“Companies are losing so much of that institutional knowledge,” Campbell says.
As this technology gets better, Campbell says, it’ll be able to do more things, including assist with the operation of heavy machinery as well as the maintenance of it. But despite what Hollywood says, augmented reality still has limits – Campbell says a customer once asked if there was a way for Vuforia to scan a bucket of assorted bolts and highlight the ones that they needed for a project.
“That’s very Tony Stark,” Campbell jokes. “Let’s focus on problems we know how to solve.”