In the 12th town hall meeting of Manufacturing Leadership Council members, Don Lanke, Director of Engineering at Pella Corporation discussed how the window and door manufacturer is leveraging augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and remote assistance technology in response to the pandemic.

The pandemic forced many Pella employees to work from home, leaving them without access to the 10+ physical plants and equipment that are necessary to their jobs. Because of that, the company looked into cutting edge technologies that can recreate physical environments and interactions for its workers.

For example, if a piece of equipment needs maintenance or reconfiguration that only an expert can provide, Pella needed a way to share the physical environment virtually, in real time, to communicate, exchange information and ultimately resolve the problem.

Their goal was not only to connect physical and virtual environments, but to reduce downtime and impact of quality issues and safety hazards, enhance training and troubleshooting, and reduce travel requirements and costs.

In mid-April, Pella decided to begin trials with two technology platforms:

  • PTC Vuforia Chalk: this remote assistance product uses AR to facilitate collaboration between onsite and offsite workers to maintain and repair products. PTC describes it as a “video call with augmented reality superpowers for industrial settings.”
  • Microsoft Dynamics 365 Remote Assist: this solution unites technicians from multiple locations via video calls from Microsoft HoloLens or iOS or Android devices and allows the documentation of repairs through photos and videos that are sharable.

Lanke said they identified these solutions because they didn’t require a lot of training for employees to learn them – and given the pandemic, the sooner they could start using them, the better. He also noted that the technologies could support a wide range of use cases, which he and his team are currently testing out, including:

  • A coatings development project with a supplier: This project would’ve been halted due to COVID-19 travel challenges, but technology allowed Pella to collaborate virtually, in real time with chemists
  • Robotic programming support: Pella automation engineers that are working remotely can connect to the physical environment, for example, they can draw arrows on screen to indicate where to look for problem areas on a machine
  • Commissioning supplier equipment: Another use case that was initially impacted due to travel challenges and rectified with technology
  • Maintenance projects: With Pella’s planners and schedulers working remotely, technology allows them to see equipment virtually and quickly get images of certain features
  • Machine build team: Technology allowed team leaders to seamlessly work from home and continue working on a physical machine

In terms of challenges, Lanke said that although the technologies were easy and quick to deploy, Wi-Fi connectivity was briefly an issue. He said they moved quickly to increase the strength of the Wi-Fi in one of the physical plants to accommodate the technologies.

Going forward, Lanke and his team are testing out the Microsoft Dynamics 365 Remote Assist solution and exploring how it integrates with Microsoft Teams and Microsoft HoloLens. He believes that the AR, MR and remote assistance technologies will be here to stay, even after the pandemic blows over.

“I 100% believe this is here to stay,” Lanke said. “COVID or no COVID, the ability for technical people and others to interface with one another, to see the situation and annotate back and forth to better understand the problem and get to some options to solve and resolve, it’s always been there, but it’s accelerated now and it’s going to be there after COVID for that very reason.”

He also said he believes these technologies will dramatically reduce travel time and costs as well.

“That’s a business value proposition that stands on its own, long after COVID.”

Learn More from MLC/NAM

For more shared resources to help your manufacturing business in its COVID-19 response efforts, visit the MLC’s online COVID-19 Operations Practices and Shared Resources.

In the meantime, if you have any tips or best practices on how your company is keeping employees safe and/or is acting to minimize business disruption during this time, please share them at mlcouncil@nam.org.