How manufacturers can optimize their productivity, quality, and efficiency with augmented reality.
With the advent of Manufacturing 4.0, most industrial companies are now recognizing the need to modernize their production and quality control processes, and to integrate innovative tools into their strategy. Digital solutions have long been used for the design and simulation of manufactured products. However, M 4.0 technologies are still not widely deployed in manufacturing despite the significant gains they bring in productivity, quality, and efficiency of operations in industrial markets that are increasingly competitive and subject to strong cost pressures.
The reason for limited deployment is often the lack of knowledge of the relevant use cases illustrating the ROI digital tools can generate. This has been the case for many digital tools (IoT, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc.) appearing in production or maintenance centers and within quality processes for some years now. How can manufacturers distinguish between projects that have never gone beyond the POC stage and those that have really been deployed and proven to bring value?
Several gains are at stake: reduction of cycle times, right the first time (reduced levels of non-conformities), reduction in costs due to defects detected too late in the process, improved traceability and digital continuity, and even increase in competence and comfort of work for operators.
Production and maintenance operations have everything to gain by integrating transformative technologies such as augmented reality. AR is particularly relevant for products with complex and variable configurations as found in many industries. It is also a suitable solution for all sectors with similar characteristics and constraints of MRO applications.
“Production and maintenance operations have everything to gain by integrating transformative technologies such as AR.”
The estimated market size for AR applications was estimated to be $15.2B in 2021, and it is forecast to grow to more than $90B by 2028. This shows clearly that companies are investing heavily in this transformative technology, but where is it being applied and how can you make best use of it? The following four examples show how AR can be applied to common manufacturing processes to transform how operations are executed.
1. Assembly Assistance
Today’s increasingly complex equipment, which is subject to great variations in configuration, hightens the risk of errors caused by interpretation of paper documentation and the multitude of elements to be assembled, machined, or installed. In addition, preparation times are often long, and the skills ramp-up of new operators is a real challenge in today’s industrial context.
AR helps operators by guiding them through preparation and assembly tasks to get it right first time in production context. The digital assembly instructions developed directly from the 3D digital mockup (DMU) are materialized in the field by being projected directly onto the equipment or displayed on a screen. For example, the stages of assembly, in particular the precise location and reference of the elements (drilling diameters, type of rivets, type of supports to be assembled, etc.), are digitally superimposed on the actual part to be assembled to guide the operator step by step.
This dramatically reduces the preparation time required for operators to start their tasks. It also reduces the possibility of errors as operators are given precise guidance for each task. Overall, this means that production rates are increased and the operators themselves attain higher skill levels faster as they are continuously being trainedas they work.
2. Quality Control of Assemblies and Sub-Assemblies
Controlling and identifying instances of noncompliance reliably and accurately at each stage of the manufacturing process is a critical issue. It aims to ensure the quality of raw parts or assembled equipment, prevent defective products from reaching clients, and avoid the associated costs. However, these inspections are often long and complex, and the traceability of operations remains very limited.
Product compliance can be effectively controlled in accordance with quality/customer requirements, while still ensuring a high level of traceability. Using a tablet, a remote camera (or even HoloLens for short operations), AR assists the operator in the control stages. The AR essentially shows precisely what the assembly should look like and the operator can see the location of the control points and note any potential nonconformities detected (either manually or with the assistance of automatic detection algorithms). Defects are documented using photographs and located with reference to the 3D model.
“AR helps operators by guiding them through preparation and assembly tasks to get it right first time in production context.”
Apart from significant increases in overall assembly and product quality, companies gain the benefit of having full traceability and real-time documentation of the operational status and any issues. Overall, the amount of time and risk associated with controlling, repairing, and reporting errors and faults can be reduced.
3. Inspection of Supplier Equipment on Receipt
When receiving tooling or assembled equipment from suppliers, manufacturers must ensure that these parts are compliant before integrating them into the assembly lines. This is in order to maintain strict quality standards and avoid manufacturing defects all along the production line. This process can involve lengthy and complex control procedures, and comes with risks of very costly errors.
AR can effectively identify and prevent defective parts or subsets from suppliers from reaching the assembly line, eliminating potential downstream issues. A series of digital instructions accompanies the operator step by step via a tablet or hand camera. This can help to confirm the compliance of incoming equipment or tools by comparing “as manufactured” with “as designed” specifications. The difference could be related to errors in the design or problems with shipment damages but either way, the discrepancy will be immediately seen. The data collected (photos and defects found) are compiled in an automatically generated report.
It’s essential to efficiently and effectively eliminate risks of interruption to production and associated costs to avoid lost time and added cost from future issues. In addition, the use-case also provides an effective way to record received parts and goods and provide data useful for supplier sourcing and negotiations.
4. Assistance with Maintenance Operations
Most companies deal with aftermarket service operations, which is the final use-case we will examine. When equipment arrives at the maintenance center, an inspection is required in order to give a defect status and map the repairs to be carried out. However, these inspections are often lengthy and sometimes incomplete. They also require lots of paper documentation and can lead to internal communication difficulties with repair teams and customer dissatisfaction when certain repairs and costs are not properly anticipated.
“AR can effectively identify and prevent defective parts or subsets from suppliers from reaching the assembly line.”
Inspection times on arrival can be reduced in maintenance operations and the completeness of inspections and associated documentation can be assured so that repair actions are effectively anticipated. Using a tablet, the inspector is guided step by step through all the control points to be checked. Data such as photos and precise defect records (location, type) are collected and compiled in a personalized report which is automatically generated and shared with the client and the repair teams. The 3D model becomes the unique reference for everyone involved in the process.
Inspection needs to be a repeatable and traceable process, which AR can enable. Not only are there significant time savings on the inspection and reporting processes but customer satisfaction can also be increased thanks to better communication and visibility to operations.
A Valuable Investment
Across these use-cases (as well as the many other applications) AR has proven to be a valuable investment for many industries. Companies report immediate gains across key manufacturing metrics such as
• Quality gains by reducing error risk by up to 90%
• Saving time by reducing cycle times from 20% to up to 80% in certain industries
In addition, there are other benefits around creating safer working environments for employees in hazardous or heavy manufacturing situations, which can dramatically reduce claims of worker injury and insurance costs.
Augmented reality, like other digitalization technologies, is not a miracle tool: it is a response to a business strategy that should be well defined upstream, with clear expectations and objectives in terms of projected gains, identified pain points, and an ambition for change in manufacturing and maintenance processes and methods from all stakeholders.
Initially, project managers and end users should focus on creating and validating an initial list of potential use cases where AR could generate possible gains. However, it is also crucial not to forget the IT stakeholders to align the strategy with existing infrastructure and systems strategies.
“Companies report immediate quality gains by reducing error risk by up to 90%.”
Once the short list of use cases has been developed, an initial proof of concept (POC) should be chosen that addresses best the needs expressed by the end-user/operators and the possible opportunities. This POC should be broken down by existing tasks and possibly even mapped as part of a Lean Value Stream Mapping approach. This will make development of the future-state impact easier to quantify.
Now, the AR process can be scripted and data collected to inform what the to-be state will look like and allow the visual and digital content to be created. It is important to verify this content as it is created so that end users be able to see what the transition will look like.
Next, the process can start to be integrated into the work environment and deployed in an operational manner. All of the relevant end-users should be trained on the controls of the technology and the application and way it should be used on the task.
Finally, it is important to complete the full integration by involving all of the adjacent stakeholders (on upstream/downstream operations) and to close the loop with the IT department.
After the POC has been deployed and in-use, it is possible to review the original, analyzed metrics against the current performance (task completion times, reduction in costs, number of errors/quality events, etc.). The process should also be looked at in context of overall operations as there could be additional potential benefits gained from areas such as customer satisfaction, supplier costs, etc. While the final ROI should have measurable direct gains such as reduced inspection times or non-compliance rates, remember that there will be intangible benefits also such as increased operator satisfaction or reduced employee turnover.
Once there is a proven business case, it becomes easier to replicate the benefits in other areas. Indeed, subsequent applications often have higher value and faster implementation times as the company slowly builds their expertise in the technology.
AR: An M 4.0 Enabler
AR is clearly a major growth area and enabler of M 4.0. However, its application and benefit is still largely unclear for many manufacturers. Some M 4.0 technologies are admittedly complex and broad in scope, which can lead to a lack of consideration and adoption. AR, however, is both focused and relatively straightforward to deploy. This provides opportunities for significant and immediate value and return on investment that many manufacturers are unfortunately missing out on. AR represents a perfect way to take a step into Industry 4.0 to leverage virtual technology to impact real world operations. M
About the author:
Adrian Wood is Director of Strategic Business Development at 3DS/Dassault Systèmes.