The boundary between the physical and virtual worlds is blurring as augmented reality gains momentum for uses across a broad range of industries.
In industrial automation, the implementation of AR could take place sooner than many people might imagine, according to Joe Dyer, team lead for manufacturing technical service at Disher Corp., a Zeeland-based engineering, product and development firm.
“AR and VR (virtual reality) are coming a little bit faster than people expected,” he told MiBiz.
AR, a programmed environment that allows users to see and interact with digitalization around them, has transformed from science fiction to reality in just a few decades. The promising potential of AR comes from the combination of data sources, data presentation and data interaction, according to a recent white paper by Frost & Sullivan Inc., a business consulting firm headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.
The AR market remains in its infancy, but the technology could become the next industrial human-machine interface (HMI), according to the report. Despite bottlenecks like ridiculously bulky headsets that do not encourage extended use, lack of standardization, and an enormous price tag, AR is already ripe for workplace functions like quality inspection, troubleshooting, work instructions, training and sales.
A smartphone application like Google Translate, which can in real time identify and translate any language through visualization or speech, is an example of how modern AR is already widely utilized, according to Dyer. This kind of “remote service” is quickly going to become more and more prevalent in industrial automation, he added.
“That’s a step-change technology, essentially being able to do something like that on a tablet or on a headset or on your phone,” Dyer said.
In the industrial world, AR could work in similar ways on similar devices. If a machine is malfunctioning, a programmer will no longer have to search through a confusing or lengthy manual to troubleshoot what went wrong, Dyer said. Instead, a tablet could scan the equipment, identify the problem, and teach the programmer how to fix it through augmented reality on a screen.
Through AR, automation integrators and machine service techs also have the potential to take on more work by offering accessible remote support. At the same time, the service could give more autonomy to maintenance managers on the shop floor.
“It takes a very specialized position that is very labor heavy, very travel heavy and very expensive and all of a sudden demystifies some of it,” Dyer said. “It’s going to save a lot and be able to increase the productivity of those highly skilled individuals.”
In fact, with common sources like YouTube, people have already started to train themselves to take how-to instructions in the form of augmented reality.
“If I’m working on my house and I want to put in a new floor, I’m just following a video while I work on the floor,” Dyer said. “What I’m doing is essentially augmented reality.”
Two AR-focused startups, Firefly Dimensions Inc. from Silicon Valley and Boston, Mass.-based Southie Autonomy, were finalists in the “Launch Pad” competition at last week’s Automate 2019 Show and Conference in Chicago, Ill. The finalists represented the “innovation that will transform the manufacturing and services sectors over the next decade,” according to Jeff Burnstein, president of the Ann Arbor-based Association for Advancing Automation.
Southie Autonomy, based at the nonprofit robotics development center MassRobotics, claims to build intelligent robotics software that enables any industrial robot to be repurposed and redeployed by people without robotics expertise or even computer skills. Operators show the robot what to do through augmented reality and the robot then programs itself via artificial intelligence — no coding needed.
The system uses a pointer-based interface, dubbed “The Wand,” to provide intuitive interaction between humans and robots so any user has the flexibility to redeploy the robot for new tasks.
“Much like what Windows and the mouse did for PCs, and what iOS did for smartphones, we need technology that makes robots easier to understand and use by a larger portion of our workforce population,” stated Rahul Chipalkatty, CEO at Southie Autonomy.
While advances in accessible robotics and automation may help place AR on the path to mass adoption across different verticals within the industrial realm, many skeptics still remain cautious.
According to the Frost & Sullivan report: “Benefits aside and despite the conviction that AR is ready for manufacturing, the bigger question is whether or not manufacturers are ready for AR.”