Opinion: XR collaboration is key to factory floor transformation

Smart factories are predicted to be the main driver for competitiveness in the next five years so connecting people, data, machines and supply chains will be key to gaining competitive edge as the digital transformation accelerates, says Karl Maddix, CEO of software scale-up Masters of Pie.

But that’s often easier said than done with global teams and dispersed supply chains – and the increasing amount of data that is being processed by machines on the factory floor.

Global engineering and manufacturing teams face complex challenges when rolling out digital transformation initiatives. Large companies tend to have very complex technical architectures that have been incrementally growing over time. This makes it difficult to change existing processes.

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Additionally, when they try to adopt innovations such as immersive technology, they face very high barriers to adoption because it’s hard to scale them. All too often, innovation starts with a proof of concept that is developed around siloed data and for a specific use case – making it difficult to embed into existing workflows for widespread use across teams. This becomes an even bigger challenge when you factor in geographic location and complex supply chains.

Juggling between platforms, cumbersome processes and managing teams across different geographic locations often delays decision making for new product introduction – holding companies back from delivering customised manufacturing efficiently.

As the typical first step in manufacturing, product design has a domino effect if done incorrectly – failing in design means failing to deliver a great product within budget. Even though they typically represent five per cent of business costs, it is estimated that 70 per cent of product costs are influenced by decisions made during the design stage.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology holds the promise of seamless remote collaboration to speed up the design process. But existing solutions lack a ‘one-click’ integrated experience – data usually needs to be exported and converted from one platform into a separate immersive experience. The time and effort involved tends to kill the whole cost/benefit aspect of adopting VR or AR. And, by exporting and converting data, you will often leave behind important metadata and the full details of the original model.

It’s only now – with technology such as 5G connectivity, edge computing and server-side rendering – that seamless real-time immersive 3D collaboration is starting to be possible, with digital twins delivered on to the factory floor.

The solution starts with the data – the common denominator between technology, methods, tools, processes and people. Using data to make the right decisions at the right time is crucial to success, saving businesses large amounts of time and money. In the automotive industry, for example, a bad decision that leads to downtime for a production line costs, on average, £15,000 per minute.

Integrating the latest extended reality (XR) collaboration technology into existing software applications ensures that a single source of truth – the lowest level of data – is available for everyone to collaborate in real time. This type of framework enables the factory floor to visualise and interact with data from various software applications – from CAD/PLM to ERP or even IIOT – allowing engineering and manufacturing teams across different locations to collaborate on the same digital twin.

factory floor

This approach removes the need for data preparation, conversion and exporting to standalone platforms – reducing the cost of managing a technology stack and improving efficiency in existing workflows – avoiding the need for teams to adapt to new processes.

Users can collaborate in real time using immersive technology like VR headsets. The ability to interact and analyse a CAD model in an immersive environment allows users to interrogate models in scales of 1:1 and beyond, with a level of detail that is impossible with flatscreens. Until now, there has been some resistance to adopting VR as it’s typically a tethered experience – the device has to be directly connected to a computer. But Qualcomm’s latest chipset, Snapdragon XR2, is ready for 5G connectivity – enabling, for example, design reviews to be conducted on the factory floor and so vastly improving the decision-making process.

One of the most powerful features enabled by 5G is the ability to slice the right amount of network capacity for each application without starving other applications/devices of needed bandwidth. As the number of connected devices continues to grow, it becomes almost impossible to send all this device-generated data into data centres (on-premises or cloud) without creating bandwidth and latency issues.

That’s where edge computing comes in – allowing data to be processed and analysed closer to the point where it is created before being sent significantly reduces latency. It is estimated that, by 2025, 75 per cent of enterprise data will be processed at the edge, compared with only 10 per cent today.

Meanwhile, server-side rendering breaks the chains of the traditional VR/AR experience by delivering streaming of XR with a level of fidelity that is identical to native tethered headsets – removing the computing capacity from the headset to deliver a truly mobile (untethered) immersive experience.

The combination of 5G, edge computing, server-side rendering and cloud streaming delivers an effective enabling network of people, data, machines and supply chains that will determine the success of the businesses of the future.

Karl Maddix, CEO of software scale-up Masters of Pie