“Augmented Reality is definitely cool, it’s relatively easy to use, and it can have a big impact on productivity and quality,” argued Jim Heppelmann, Chief Executive Officer of PTC in an exclusive Executive Dialogue session during the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s 2021 Rethink Summit this week.
Speaking with MLC Co-Founder David R. Brousell, Heppelmann noted that most people have tended to think of digital benefits as always going to knowledge workers, or as part of connected machines and automation. The people who have not really benefited from digital transformation so far, are the frontline workers who stand and work next to those machines.
What Augmented Reality (AR) can do, he added, is to bring digital information directly into that work environment so that front-line workers can easily access and visually perceive information as they are actually doing their job.
It’s a technology that allows “bits and bytes to become sounds and sights”, explained Heppelmann.
Lots of companies have already seen the benefits of AR during the pandemic, he added, citing the example of auto company workers around the world who were able to be rapidly and remotely trained to make ventilators – a vital product which they had never made before.
Those kinds of primary use cases, involving work instructions, or training and mentoring, or remote support, are where many companies are already getting value. And Heppelmann believes there’s still lots of room for improvement. Despite all the digital investments manufacturers have made so far, he estimates that around 50% of front-line work is still not automated.
What’s more, he says that for every knowledge worker in a manufacturing organization there are around three front line workers on the plant floor or in customer facing and service roles. That’s where much of the skills gap exists in the industry today. And as experienced people continue to retire, they will continue take a lot of their domain knowledge with them, so the skills gap is likely to get even worse.
That’s why trying to digitize the knowledge of those retiring workers is also often a primary use case of AR. As companies use it, they are accumulating a large set of digital expertise that can help new workers learn their trade. And by harnessing AI and analytics with AR systems, companies can also ensure every step in a production or other process has been taken correctly and so verify the quality of the work. Over time, that helps all front-line employees to become more productive and more efficient.
“That’s why I call it a revolution,” he concluded. “We are bringing the power of the digital cloud to the front-line workforce for the first time. And that’s a big, powerful idea.”