Is an augmented reality or virtual reality system in your factory’s future?

The technology, in the form of Google Glass, has already entered the mainstream of factory operations at AGCO Corp., where it is being used to improve quality in the manufacturing of the company’s huge agricultural machines. At AGCO’s Jackson, Minn., site, 30 workers use Google Glass in operations. By the end of the year, the company expects to have 180 people using the technology.

AGCO’s pioneering efforts with Google Glass – an optical, head-mounted device designed in the shape of eyeglasses that, using a small, built-in processor that can access the Internet as well as applications, displays information directly in a user’s field of vision – was the subject of a Manufacturing Leadership Council tour at the Jackson facility last week. More than 70 ML Council members and invited guests toured the nearly one-million square foot site where the company’s Massey Ferguson and Challenger wheel tractors, Challenger track tractors, and RoGator and TerraGator application vehicles are built.

The Google Glass implementation, which AGCO officials refer to as an “informed reality” system rather than a more expansive augmented reality system, was first piloted in the company’s final factory inspection operation in 2014 in Jackson. It is also now being used to provide work instructions and on-the-job training in Tractor and Application assembly lines and paint operations. ML Council members toured these operations last week and also got a look at AGCO’s virtual reality room, in which a large, wall-to-wall screen displays images that can be manipulated. The virtual reality system in that room is called VISCON Christie 4K VR system.

At the Jackson plant, the Google Glass implementation uses a software platform called Proceedix, which is delivered as a software service to manage enterprise procedures, work instructions, and checklists. Proceedix, from a software company of the same name based in Ghent, Belgium, is linked to ACGO’s Teamcenter product lifecycle management application software, from Siemens PLM Software, and is in the process of being integrated with the plant’s MAPICS ERP system to drive more rapid and automated decision making.

AGCO officials say they measure the value of the Google Glass system through process time reductions, quality improvements, and safety incident reductions. Initial internal studies have shown, the officials say, up to a 25% decrease in process time and significantly reduced quality issues.

Last year, AGCO won the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s High Achiever Award in the category of Internet of Things in Manufacturing Leadership for its Google Glass project.

And the Google Glass system is now spreading throughout AGCO. The company’s German plants are piloting the system in their quality and materials operations. The system is also being implemented in AGCO’s Baltimore assembly center; its combine plant in Hesston, Kansas; in its grain bin storage plant in Flora, Illinois; in its power engine plant in Finland; and in plants in Brazil and Italy.

But more than quality improvements, reductions in safety incidents, and gains in efficiency are driving AGCO’s push with augmented reality technology. As the world’s third largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment, behind John Deere and CHN, $7.5 billion AGCO believes the key differentiator in its future success will be technology.

Compared to AGCO, only a few ML Council member companies that attended the tour, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, are underway with augmented or virtual reality systems in any meaningful way at this point in time. Raytheon Missile Systems, for example, has undertaken an initiative to use immersive and virtual technologies to collaboratively design and manufacture its products. As part of this, the company has developed an Immersive Design Center that provides a virtual, collaborative design environment that enables product and manufacturing design to digitally connect. Raytheon will be presenting its project at the 13th annual Manufacturing Leadership Summit, June 12-14, in Huntington Beach, CA. And both AGCO and Raytheon, along with IBM, will participate in a panel discussion on augmented and virtual reality at the ML Summit.

But there are many other manufacturers that are just getting started looking at augmented or virtual reality technology. And the tour inspired a number of them to start envisioning how the technology could be applied in their own operations. An executive from one Council member company from the aerospace and defense sector, for example, said it, too, was interested in finding a way to use augmented reality systems to better conduct quality inspections. But the company largely ruled out using a technology such as Google Glass for parts tracking, given that an aircraft can consist of 35,000 parts. “It would be overload to have Google Glass on the plant floor,” he said.

Another perspective came from a Council member company from the electronics industry. This company said it was definitely looking at augmented reality systems on its plant floor but is also interested in other applications, such as in quoting and in warehousing. ‘We want to take it a step further and incorporate it into other technology platforms,” he said.

And a Council member from a major consumer products company said it is investigating augmented reality systems for low-volume assembly operations.

Apart from specific applications, a Council member from a food manufacturing company pointed out that new “cool” technologies such as augmented or virtual reality systems can be effective tools to attract younger people to manufacturing. “Using pens and paper isn’t attractive,” he said. “Tech draws the kids in. We compete with other food companies for talent. Having the neat stuff in your plant helps from a labor standpoint.”

But AGCO and other company executives at the tour emphasized that the technology, while exciting, still has to be subject to a solid business case and return on investment analysis. Said a Council member from another food manufacturing company “I’m trying to understand where it can fit into my business in a way that isn’t just because it’s a cool technology.”

That’s certainly a sober and reasonable approach to the technology, but I wouldn’t altogether dismiss the importance of getting excited about the cool factor. After all, many times we simply don’t know at the outset where a new technology road may lead and what advantages it may provide. Sometimes it’s just better to be moved by the wonder of it all.