To leverage data gained through digitalization, organizations must address the methods they use to deliver and consume information. The customizable dashboards used in many Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications are well suited for many tasks. However, within a connected digital enterprise, additional tools are needed to accommodate the special requirements of all roles, including those outside the office. Leveraging augmented reality and augmented reality technology offers unique capabilities that address many of these requirements for engineers, operators, and technicians.
Early use cases of augmented reality (AR) and augmented reality (VR) in industrial applications demonstrated significant promise. However, in most use cases, they have been employed as siloed toolkits. Ideally, to realize the full potential of AR and VR to support digital transformation in industry, they should be integrated with larger enterprise solutions. When packaged with IIoT and analytics and drawing on internal knowledge resources, connected AR/VR tools offer the potential to provide users with immersive experiences, real-time contextualized data, and role-related information to help them execute their daily tasks quickly, accurately, and effectively.
Within the connected digital enterprise, this model can enhance the user experience, support innovation, and transform the customer interaction model to help improve the way companies design, manufacture, operate, maintain, and service their products and assets.
Empowering the Next-generation Connected Worker
With augmented reality, the user sees the real world, but with information digitally overlaid. AR devices are aware of the spatial configuration of the environment. They can “sense” what the worker is looking at to display only the operation at hand. This is accomplished with video-see-through technology (like a tablet or smartphone), or with optical-see-through technology (such as smart glasses). In contrast, with virtual reality, the user is fully immersed in a virtual world presented through a head-mounted device. Eye- and head-tracking sensors synchronize the virtual display with the user’s motion. While AR and VR are often cited together, their distinguishing characteristic – whether or not the user’s view of the real world is included – make them very different tools for very different applications.
AR is well suited for applications in the field, plant, or on the factory floor where value is derived through real-world interactions and environmental awareness is essential. VR, on the other hand, is a powerful tool for creating immersive experiences. VR lends itself to applications such as product and process design or training simulations. Although the technologies are relatively new to the industrial space, several use cases are gaining traction.
Assembly Operations with Augmented Reality
Assembly guidance is the most common application of industrial AR. Here, an AR device prompts operators with work instructions for product assembly. However, unlike traditional work instructions, the AR overlays physical and digital models (digital twins) to monitor progress, provide feedback, and incorporate automated inspection for quality control. Companies that employ this tool achieve faster throughput, reduce rework, and experience fewer quality escapes.
Maintenance Procedures with Augmented Reality
In another use case, AR devices provide maintenance and service technicians with detailed workflows to complete their tasks. A single asset may require dozens of different maintenance procedures involving hundreds of components and complex steps. Rather than investing resources to build these workflows, many companies instead rely on AR to supply their technicians with asset diagnostics, work order information, recording capabilities, and a platform to contact remote experts for assistance. The AR user can share their video feed with the “over-the-shoulder” mentor and the remote expert can overlay their own annotations or feed the user with 3D design or manufacturing/maintenance details for better contextualization.
Virtual walk-throughs can include real-time engineering and operational data from IoT or other connected platforms, facilitating informed decisions to further enhance productivity and safety. Augmented reality provides maintenance technicians with an enhanced, mixed- reality experience to reduce downtime and increase the first-time fix rate.
Companies are using this capability to service their own assets, but also as part of service packages sold with their products. For this reason, AR maintenance applications are among the most transformative from a business perspective.
Immersive Training with Virtual Reality
VR may not be appropriate for use in the field, plant, or manufacturing line; but can serve as a powerful training tool for the operators, technicians, and engineers who work in those environments. VR can provide a highly realistic virtual training environment with contextualized, real-time data overlaid. This enables operators, maintenance technicians, and plant engineers to explore a variety of plant and field scenarios in a safe, off-line environment and prepare for the real-world environment with reduced unknowns. VR enables near-limitless creation of training scenarios with zero risk of disrupted operations.
This new training method is gaining the most traction in the process industries, where competency requires familiarity with equipment and operational and maintenance procedures. It is often challenging for the new generation of workers to acquire this familiarity, particularly for sophisticated and/or rarely executed tasks. VR provides these workers with a repeatable, low-stress learning environment in which to master these skills.
Maturing from Isolated Tools to an Enterprise Solution
AR and VR are important enabling technologies for digital transformation. However, today, they are often deployed as point solutions. While AR and VR solutions have gained traction for specific applications, few offerings provide the infrastructure and management capabilities necessary for a comprehensive enterprise solution. It’s likely that today’s point solutions will eventually be part of a large network of solutions built on and powered by AR-VR platforms. The success of such platforms relies on integration with other enterprise software such as product lifecycle management (PLM), manufacturing execution systems (MES), and field service management (FSM). An AR-VR initiative must function horizontally across these and other business groups to provide and manage tailored applications for the roles within them.
With a connected AR-VR platform, companies can apply these technologies systematically throughout their engineering value chain. However, most organizations aren’t equipped to create integrated AR and VR tools on their own. Developing these requires knowledge of hardware capabilities, software development kits, and proficiency in integrating enterprise software and building scenarios to address lifecycle problems. ARC Advisory Group research indicates that a new services market is emerging to provide this unique combination of requirements.
TCS’s Connected AR-VR Solution & Services to Industries
As a well-known global services provider, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) provides technology services, consulting, and business solutions. The company is part of the Tata Group, one of India’s largest industrial conglomerates. TCS was established in 1968 as a division and became incorporated as a separate entity in 1995. TCS recently briefed ARC Advisory Group about the company’s vision for the future of its AR-VR services.
TCS has established an AR-VR service business to create connected applications for roles in design, manufacturing, operation, and services with interlinked solution themes from its Centers of Excellence, including its NextGen Design-to-Manufacture (D2M), PLM, MOM, and IoT/I4.0 Technology streams. The company leverages its competency in systems integration to provide its customers with AR and VR tools that draw information from existing enterprise software and IoT solutions. This line of communication empowers employees to make better decisions at every point during an asset’s lifecycle and is necessary for companies to achieve the full value of their digital thread. TCS has already developed solutions for a variety of industries that help demonstrate the transformative power of AR and VR technologies. According to TCS, these solutions “consume & experience” the digital attributes of physical things to create an enhanced user experience. Specific solutions include:
- Immersive VR-guided instructions for aero engine maintenance engineers in a connected fault diagnostic scenario
- VR-guided training for industrial applications
- Remote collaboration with experts through AR applications for field service engineers
- Connected-worker AR applications for plant operators and maintenance engineers
- Role-based AR solutions for manufacturing visualization for operators, supervisors, and quality engineers integrated with MES applications
- Interactive AR for retail in-store experience and remote sampling
As a global services provider, TCS takes a product-agnostic approach. The company has allied itself with leading software application providers like PTC, Microsoft, and Siemens and has experience working with the major hardware platforms. TCS believes this strategy provides it with the flexibility to develop optimal solutions for its clients based on their unique needs and the available AR-VR products, instead of force-fitting software and hardware platforms into roles for which they are not well suited.
Digitalization trends have created new opportunity for companies to enhance decision making across their engineering value chains. Although the strengths of AR and VR tools are well recognized, industrial organizations have been reluctant to invest in their own pilot programs due to lack of experience and expertise. Hardware suppliers, software suppliers, and system integrators are all attempting to address this demand. While the former two possess a deep knowledge of their respective products, large-scale system integrators, such as TCS, can often provide a holistic approach, taking into consideration established business and industrial processes to deliver a more mature solution.
Regardless of their avenue of adoption, organizations investigating AR and VR opportunities should consider the following:
- Reliability – With AR, real-time interactions demand rapid processing, reliable bandwidth connections, and advanced data compression.
- Safety – When selecting hardware, consider the setting it will be used in, look for products that have already been proven in industrial environments.
- Scalability – When launching a pilot project, keep in mind the resources required to scale the solution and meet future needs.
- User Friendliness – AR-VR applications should be intuitive and the hardware well suited for both the task and user.
To succeed in the future, industrial organizations will need to become connected digital enterprises. The visually interactive digital model supported by new technologies such as AR and VR will play an increasingly important role here because it can improve both human performance and business processes, while supporting innovation.
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Keywords: Digitalization, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, IIoT, TCS, ARC Advisory Group.