Augmented reality (AR) is a key pillar of Industry 4.0 (or the fourth industrial revolution), side-by-side with other potentially transformative technologies like machine learning and big data. Indeed, consultancy firm PwC has estimated that industrial manufacturing and design is one of the biggest areas for augmented and virtual reality (VR), with their use in heavy industry having the potential to deliver a $360bn GDP boost by 2030.
In this latest edition of our series on how augmented reality is faring across a range of industries, we’ll be taking a closer look at why AR is proving so useful in heavy industry, in particular the fields of construction, manufacturing and energy.
AR is proving to be a key tool for the construction industry, whether in the design stage or actually in the construction process itself, leading a 2020 study of the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry to say that AR and VR would see “strong growth” in the next 5 to 10 years.
On the design side, numerous architectural tools exist to help with space visualisation using augmented reality. One such example is The Wild, which allows designers to view 3D models in both virtual and augmented reality. Such tools can layer virtual details onto a building plan so that plans can be more readily understood by stakeholders.
That requires highly detailed and accurate 3D models, which is where the technology overlaps with digital twin technology. Using those digital twins, companies like Akular can enable clients to see what a building would look like on-site in the real world before it is built via a mobile application.
When it comes to actual construction, augmented reality again finds a number of uses, not least training workers on safety. That might involve AR headsets that interact with tags on potentially dangerous areas to bring up safety information, but even before workers are on-site, AR can help with training them on how to use heavy machinery – as with the construction equipment training simulators offered by CM Labs or the Arvizio AR Instructor.
“Industries are experiencing a shortage of skilled front-line employees and view augmented reality as a means to accelerate training and efficiently transfer the expertise of experienced workers,” said Jonathan Reeves, CEO of Arvizio. “Arvizio enables organizations to rapidly upskill employees without the need for on-site coaching and mentoring. By delivering no-code authored augmented reality instruction and remote expert connectivity, AR Instructor can substantially increase productivity and reduce errors of workers performing complex operational activities.”
Meanwhile, progress capture and tracking functionality directly compares real-world sites with virtual models to ensure they aren’t deviating – all in real-time. A host of companies provide variations on that technology such as VisualLive, which enables users to witness 3D models in real life via headsets such as the Microsoft HoloLens or mobile devices.
Much of the technology we’ve covered for construction can equally apply to the manufacturing industry, whether that’s learning how to use dangerous equipment or visualising the layout of equipment and machinery in a factory. None of this is to say there aren’t plenty of bespoke uses for augmented reality in the manufacturing space, however.
One early pioneer was Volkswagen, which was using augmented reality to assist service workers way back in 2013. The MARTA app showed step-by-step instructions on how to repair and replace certain components, overlaying its advice on the car via an iPad app. Along similar lines is Boeing’s more recent use of augmented reality to give technicians real-time, hands-free, interactive 3D wiring diagrams.
Interestingly, that technology has bled over into the consumer space with AR manuals that assist car-owners with basic maintenance operations by showing precisely where components are located within a car.
In the design space, AR has been deployed by the largest manufacturers to rapidly iterate and do away with expensive and time-consuming physical prototypes. In the case of Ford and its partnership with HoloLens, changes can be made to a design and reflected in real-time to collaboratively sculpt a new vehicle.
AR has been trusted at the very highest levels of manufacturing, too. Lockheed Martin utilised augmented reality in the creation of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft, overlaying information to help with mission-critical procedures such as precisely aligning fasteners.
In the energy sector, AR has the potential to remedy significant problems faced by the industry, chief of which is a brain drain caused by an ageing workforce. Indeed, the US Department of Labor estimated in 2019 that 50% of the current energy utility workforce will retire within the next ten years. The institutional knowledge being lost could be replenished more quickly with the help of AR technology.
Shell is duly using the remote collaboration possibilities of AR to educate workers in the field. Expert consultants are able to see through a worker’s eyes via an AR headset, and even draw on the screen of the augmented reality display they are using. That increases safety as workers interact with potentially dangerous heavy oil and gas equipment, as well as allowing experienced but ageing employees the ability to work remotely.
The energy sector is no slouch when it comes to more specific AR solutions either, such as Upskills’s Skylight platform which allows companies to more easily develop bespoke augmented reality apps for use with AR devices, ranging from Google Glass to Microsoft HoloLens 2 and mobile devices. Then there are solutions such as Adroit, which can provide guidance on repairing high-stakes equipment such as oil rigs by scanning and identifying faulty components and machinery.
In heavy industry, where the costs of prototyping are enormous and the potential risks from machinery are significant, leaning on the virtual possibilities of augmented reality is common sense – hence the interest in the technology from across the sector.
To find out more about how AR is progressing in other fields, read the previous entry in the series, where we explored the healthcare industry in particular.