On The Floor Safety Training Training Workforce

Augmented Reality Is In Your Future

Klaus M. Blache | March 12, 2020

For augmented reality to make a difference, we need to develop “plant-floor friendly and affordable” applications that enable and enhance effective and safe reliability and maintenance functions.

Q: What can we expect from augmented reality in maintenance?

A: The future is about connectivity between people and machines and machines to machines (M2M). As companies move toward Industry 4.0, there will be more application such as prescriptive maintenance (applying advanced analytics to assets to better determine when maintenance will be required and automatically generating the required work order), augmented reality (where real-world images are enhanced by computer technology that overlays digital information), and machine learning/artificial intelligence (systems identifying and learning from data patterns from data to improve decision making).

Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence that is self-learning and enabled by algorithms. Artificial intelligence is much broader in scope and attempts to emulate human thinking.

For more than 20 years, we’ve watched the first-down line (TV football) that moves up and down the field as an offensive drive progresses. That’s an early example of an augmented-reality (AR) application. About the same time (1998), NASA used AR for spacecraft navigation. There were some earlier industrial and gaming applications, but it was the 2016 Pokemon Go game craze that put AR in the public spotlight.

An April 2019 Gartner Inc. forecast stated that, “by 2020, 100-million consumers will shop in AR online and in store.” AR technology is becoming an everyday experience and will eventually become commonplace in industrial applications.

I’ve been looking for affordable, easily implemented, and practical AR applications. The technologies exist, but it’s been rather challenging to assemble the correct people to develop the content and experience/learn from early failures and usability shortfalls. Those steps must occur before we are able to scale up the technology at reasonable costs.

Several large companies are spending significant money to eventually end up with a workable solution. Some of them are seeing the benefits in operations and maintenance.

I am going to focus primarily on the maintenance opportunities of AR. There are several potential benefits, including reducing human error, faster job-task learning, shortened repair time, increased use of knowledge to enable more precision maintenance, and regulation compliance. This will lead to reducing breakdowns/increasing uptime, which results in lower costs and better return on investment.

The challenge is to develop “plant-floor-friendly and affordable” AR applications that enable such things as:

• Real-time access to safety reminders, breakdown data, maintenance manuals, and step-by-step repair instructions
• Proper disassembly and assembly steps
• Mapping out and inspecting assets
• Receiving and closing out work orders
• Assistance in finding issues and suggestions for potential fixes
Being able to accurately document work performed, and track parts used and on what assets
Checklists and where/how to look for potential condition-based issues
Easy remote assistance when needed and for training
Improved safety practices overall (but making sure that wearing goggles does not become a safety issue).

In the short run, and because of cost effectiveness, I anticipate more use of smart mobile devices, likely in combination with some wearables. According to a 2018 Statista survey, “smartphone-based VR/AR (virtual reality/augmented reality) devices were used by 77% of the respondents in the United States.” However, the complexity of today’s machinery, equipment, and controls will, at some point, require some type of headset or smart glasses for hands-free use to allow the necessary level of intervention.

Another related term that you’ll be hearing more often is human augmentation (or Human 2.0), which is the use of technology to enhance a person’s cognitive and physical experiences. This can be something on the body or inside the body, i.e., wearable devices that sense whether you’re falling asleep while driving or working heavy equipment on long nightshifts.

Human 2.0 also has many obvious medical benefits, such as aiding vision and perception, prosthetics, strength-increasing gloves, and exoskeletons. AR and wearable technology, interacting with each other and the internet, is all about human augmentation. This also touches on many areas of human factors/ergonomics.

The organizations that understand how instilling a robust reliability and maintenance (R&M) culture and process can contribute to achieving a highly efficient and effective operation will have a competitive advantage. Proper implementation of R&M best practices typically results in better safety, greater uptime/throughput, improved quality by reducing variation, and lower costs. By planning for and integrating AR with maintenance technologies and practices, the current R&M benefits can be further improved. EP

Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at kblache@utk.edu.

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