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Challenges, Solutions and Benefits of Advanced Visualisation (AR/VR/MR) in the High Value Manufacturing Sector
David Varela, Technology Manager Visualisation, MTC-Manufacturing Technology Centre
For this reason, this article is focused on the specific setting of AR/MR technologies within the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) context.
Year upon year automation has taken over many roles that were traditionally performed by humans. However the complexity of some HVM products is challenging even for state-of-the-art automation, this means that the operators in the production line would be replaced in the very long-term transformation plan.
That being said, operators make mistakes, lack consistency, get sick, and all of that cannot be forecasted. This lack of control over the human nature triggers the real opportunity for Advanced Visualisation.
But, how can graphical content delivered in the environment of the operator help to control the human nature, increase production throughput, reduce mistakes, and facilitate knowledge transfer? The answer is: it cannot.
Advanced Visualisation refers not only to the graphical user interface (GUI) but the whole integration of systems and data sources. These operate in an orchestrated manner to deliver business value by mitigating the impact of human nature on the production line.
Therefore, driving value from this technology is far more complex than hiring a developer to build an experience in Unity using a couple of CAD models. In fact, no serious manufacturer would hire a developer or engineer to develop their ERP system, or a CNC machine, with the aim of running it into production. Instead, this company would have studied the business case many times before the expenditure is approved to go ahead with a competent and trusted supplier.
That introduces the first big challenge of Augmented Reality for the enterprise: the low maturity of the supply chain. The eco-system is currently formed by digital agencies that create the AR content and technology providers that create the SDKs and hardware necessary to display the digital content. There are also a few service companies that are beginning to offer either hardware, software or expertise as a service. However, considering the complex nature of the systems integration required to drive the best efficiencies, there is still a missing player: the Advanced Visualisation Systems Integrator.
Like other systems integrators, these companies should have great knowledge of change and transformational management driven by business requirements, IT systems integration, and Advanced Visualisation expertise.
The lack of control over the human nature triggers the real opportunity for Advanced Visualisation
As it sounds, almost any IT integrator with a couple of Advanced Visualisation developers could play that role easily. The reality is, however, that the expertise required in Advanced Visualisation makes it easier for new contenders coming from other backgrounds (e.g. gaming) to deliver successful solutions.
And that is the next big challenge: finding a supplier who really understands the technology challenges for adoption in the manufacturing enterprise.
After identifying the business cases (i.e. assembly support, training, maintenance support, remote expert, etc.) and the metrics for validation (production rate, right first time rate, time to competency, etc.), the next step for these companies would be to develop a transformation plan highlighting the key areas of focus for the technology enablement. Have the right data repositories been identified? How will the visualisation systems interface with them? What is the impact on the current infrastructure? Has the data been used and structured in a manner that can be consumed by the visualisation systems? What are the data security requirements?
The answers to these questions will set the foundation for the back-end design of the solution. Although the back-end is critical for meeting the functional requirements of the system, it is the front-end design that will determine the adoption and usability of the tool.
As an example, industrial Advanced Visualisation experiences must be designed with three considerations in mind: the new paradigm of contextual 3D data visualisation, current standards of human-machine interface design (some colours and icons already mean something in industry), and occupational health and safety. UX designers must consider all of the above, and design and execute the necessary tests to validate the usability, ergonomics and safety of the application. In addition, UX designer must work close to the final users (operators, auditors, assemblers, maintainers, etc.) in order to ensure the application is designed to help them rather than hinder them.
With regards to hardware selection, the Advanced Visualisation Systems Integrator must perform a trade-off analysis of the different devices on the market and suggest the one that best suits the use-case. Despite all of this, when scoping a solution, hardware agnosticism should be amongst the system specification.
The next big question is: who will develop the AR/MR content? Should the business hire someone to create the fancy experiences using a game engine or a 3D animation package? Should it be outsourced? Should the solution incorporate an easy way for business users to author their content?
Looking at how other software tools have been integrated in enterprise in the past, it is logical to think that applications will have a user-friendly interface to allow manufacturers to own the authoring of their own AR/MR content. In principle, just like a standard CAD user today does not need to do any scripting or coding in order to design and visualise mechanical components.
In conclusion, at the time of writing this article, the ecosystem described above is not ready yet to supply such solutions to drive top efficiencies. However, this is the right time for early adopters and companies seeking a competitive advantage to explore how Advanced Visualisation can be embedded in the daily operations of their business.
Minimise the risk by starting small: it is better to begin with a proof of concept, then move to a pilot and then to full deployment, rather than trying to approach the latter from the beginning. Try, fail, learn and repeat as fast as possible. No matter how mature the application or platform is, the main objective is to ensure that it works for your business.
Finally make sure you work together with your suppliers to develop joint roadmaps. This will ensure the ecosystem matures by providing the right solutions rather than letting them go around in circles. Similarly they will be in a better position to help you make the right decisions about this business-changing technology.