Through the looking glass

Technology allowing problems in the real world to be solved in virtual reality is speeding up the process of servicing. Will Stirling reports

From slow beginnings, augmented reality technology is about to give Britain’s engineering maintenance and manufacturing companies a whole new angle, where layers of digital information will enhance productivity and reduce downtime.

Generators, or gensets, are often delivered to a site unmanned, treated as a plug-and-play asset. But what happens if the genset does not start? Check the fuel, but then what – does the site manager literally have to read the manual? Caterpillar has devised a solution.

A construction technician can view the genset through a smart tablet’s camera, and additional diagnostic information is layered on to the tablet screen. Push the start-up button and icons show there is adequate fuel and battery charge to start it. Turn a knob on the genset, the tablet reveals there is the right voltage for the application required. Now a red warning light on the screen shows that the air filter has gone past its service hours. This tells either the user to change the filter, or the genset leaser that this needs changing before the next rental. Other parameters include service meter hours and charge oil temperature.

This is the result of a six-month beta test programme between software developer PTC and Caterpillar, and demonstrated live on stage by Terri Lewis, digital and technology director at Caterpillar at the PTC LiveWorx expo in Boston in June. Augmented reality technology – where information about the surrounding real world of the user becomes interactive and able to be manipulated digitally – is increasingly helping engineers in real-world operations, such as maintenance, to find and fix problems.

Augmentereality offrs a digital overlay giving  information about what you see in reality
Augmentereality offers a digital overlay giving information about what you see in reality

Augmented reality (AR) visualisation allows maintenance engineers, production engineers and users of products to add layers of simulated information, sometimes text or represented in images – a 2D plan or 3D CAD drawing – to enhance and ‘augment’ that structure’s features. This is different to virtual reality visualisation technology.

Today, the UK boasts many virtual reality (VR) suites, which create completely virtual scenarios that primarily help engineers to design components and assemblies quicker, smarter and with lower prototyping costs. Organisations using VR include Jaguar Land Rover, Siemens Digital Factory, Rolls-Royce, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) near Rotherham and the Manufacturing Technology Centre. Some of these suites are available for companies to rent.

While AR has been around for several years, hitherto used more commonly in gaming, the defence industry – think intelligent helmet information displays – and architecture and town planning, it has taken longer to permeate the engineering world. “Many companies are doing research, such as proof-of-concept trials, in this area, but there is a big difference between trials on the shopfloor and making it a standard process,” said Chris Freeman, AMRC augmented reality technical fellow. “There is only one AR product that has been certified for real industry application, used by Airbus Group, a tablet-based solution.”

Uptake of AR has been slower in the engineering world
Uptake of AR has been slower in the engineering world

Why the slow uptake? Part of the reason is that the technology was a little slow to realise the potential of industry. Google introduced its Google Glass prototype in 2013 but it failed to match the hype and was discontinued. As well as privacy and safety concerns, consumers possibly found they did not need to remain glued to Facebook all day. Google Glass 2 is in development and developers of AR glasses should have come to industry first, said Chris Freeman. “An industry audience could [use this technology to] work with instructions, a form of digital map of the product or project. There is a huge amount of value for business,” said Freeman. “Industry will rescue Google Glass, and Glass 2 will be an enterprise-level technology.”

While VR is used for design engineering, a good example of how AR will benefit manufacturing is just-in-time. A day-to-day example of just-in-time is satellite navigation technology. The driver needs the information at precisely the right time or the instructions will be useless.
In manufacturing, job cards that are currently printed can be automatically sent to the operator, contextualised to the job, so they do not need to collect paperwork.

“AR has a lot of synergy with lean manufacturing, and the drive towards a paperless environment,” said Freeman. “We are looking at how AR can help to improve that means of information delivery. For example take a job card, walk up to a machine, scan your barcode and it will auto-load the right job for you for that day or shift.” The implication is that operator-specific information is superimposed on the manufacturing cell using the AR glasses.

As further evidence of the unstoppable connectedness of everything, software developers are now using augmented reality to link engineering design and the Internet of Things. The idea, said PTC CEO Jim Heppelman at the launch of Vuforia’s Studio Enterprise at LiveWorx 2016, is to “fundamentally change the way we experience things in the enterprise. We are on a mission to democratise AR and make it mainstream for customers of CAD”.

AR can significantly speed up the time taken to complete tasks
AR can significantly speed up the time taken to complete tasks

The Internet of Things gives companies an insight into how their products behave while in use, helping manufacturers to service products, predict when they will fail, allowing them to engineer them better. AR provides a way to visualise that information, and context is key.

“AR provides a digital overlay of what you’re seeing in the real world, and the value of AR is highest when you have physical proximity,” said Mike Campbell, executive vice-president of Vuforia Studio at PTC. “It is less valuable to a design engineer than to a service technician or, for example, an oil-well operator, someone who is standing right in front of the machine.”

And AR technology will speed up the servicing of products. Boeing and the University of Iowa recently did a study on AR. Experienced and inexperienced service technicians were given traditional paper documents, the same documents on a tablet and then the AR documentation. It achieved similar results for completion but the AR group completed the task 30 per cent quicker, and their ‘first-time fix’ rate was faster by up to 90 per cent. Cranfield University and partners including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and the UK Ministry of Defence, launched a national strategy for through-life engineering services in July to encourage more companies to develop product service strategies for a global market estimated to be worth £1tn. Cranfield has a VR and AR suite and its overseas masters students are now completing engineering courses remotely, using the AR facility virtually through a high-speed internet connection.

But beware the trough of disillusionment. As with all new technology, there is a peak time when AR will be ready to ‘plug-and-play’ for manufacturing applications.

Siemens Digital Factory in Congleton trialled AR technology for operating its electronic products and opted to buy the Vuzix M100 Enterprise glasses. “We found it useful for applications such as translation – when you view a hazard label in German, what you see through the glasses is the English translation in real-time,” said Carl German, product engineering manager at Siemens Drive Technologies in Congleton. “But unless it was font size 70 or close, the glasses struggled. So while it was suitable for a demonstration in practical terms it was not something you could use for manufacturing operations.”

Siemens wants to see refinements in the capability of the vision and battery life, but expects to see more companies deploy AR visualisation on the factory floor, the oil rig and the building site very soon.