Manufacturing is an industry where every second matters. Modern automated factory floors never stop running, and even the tiniest mistake in design or layout can cost untold millions, as Intel famously discovered several years ago.
That’s one reason virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality have found such a foothold in the industry. The ability to simulate everything from the factory floor to the most extreme edge case of the final product is invaluable, and the ability to do it instantly and effectively for free makes VR a transformative technology for factories.
Manufacturing is also a very, very important sector in the US economy. In 2013, 8.8% of jobs in the US were in manufacturing, and factories generated $2.1 trillion dollars that year, or 12.5% of the US GDP. The industry is crucial to the well-being of the nation, and so it has historically been very welcoming of new technologies that might help maintain an edge on overseas competitors.
Virtual reality can provide that edge, and has made great footholds in the manufacturing space. From machine layout to safety training, manufacturing is one of the main drivers of widespread VR adoption. Here are some of the most innovative ways the technology is used.
Ford was one of the first car manufacturers to utilize virtual reality in its processes. The company has employed dedicated virtual reality specialists for many years, and uses the technology in all aspects of its operations. Engineers are able to design and build an entire care, from the power train to the upholstery, in a virtual environment.
Today, Ford utilizes consumer-available head-mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, but in fact they developed their own in-house solution long before VR headsets were available at retail. The FIVE (Ford Immersive Vehicle Environment) system translates CAD designs into virtual cars. Using extremely high-resolution models and textures, engineers are able to inspect car components down to the millimeter, as well as walk around and inside the vehicle itself.
The technology also allows Ford designers to collaborate with each other across vast geographic distances. Market specialists in Asia, Australia, or other far-away places can virtually tour a new vehicle with the engineering team in Dearborn, Michigan, without incurring travel costs. The ability to stay in touch and keep collaborating on vehicle designs is crucial to their success in foreign markets whose needs might be very different than those of Americans.
In 2015, shipping and logistics firm DHL piloted a new augmented reality program to aid the efficiency of their warehouses. Using Google Glass and other AR head-mounted displays, workers were able to engage in “vision picking”. The hardware provided navigation aid to the workers, sending them directly to the correct aisle and shelf for their assigned packages. Packages were specially highlighted in the displays, allowing warehouse personnel to quickly and easily identify them among a sea of similar boxes.
During the pilot study, 10 order pickers were able to fulfill 9,000 orders consisting of a total of 20,000 items. The project was a success, and workers performed much faster, more efficiently, and with fewer errors using the technology than ever before. Take a look at the program in action.
Since the success of the project provided the viability of an augmented reality warehouse a number of other solutions have come to market. Inventory management giant SAP is perhaps the most notable, with a number of competitors like SmartPick following close behind. In the near future, these digital warehouses are likely to become the norm, with workers checking out an AR headset as they clock in.
Manufacturing equipment developer Gabler has accumulated clients around the world in their 100 years of operation. The company manufactures custom solutions for other manufacturers to use on the assembly line, particularly in high-volume fields like candy and pharmaceutical manufacturing. It is a highly competitive space in which both speed and safety are critical.
Recently, Gabler has incorporated virtual reality into their manufacturing process. Using head-mounted displays to recreate their manufacturing lines in the virtual world, Gabler can locate potential safety hazards before the product ever reaches a client facility, or even before it is built at all. Designers at Gabler and representatives at their clients, no matter where they are physically located, can explore and interact with a piece of equipment together in VR. By sending a virtual mannequin through the workflow or performing it themselves, Gabler can see where costly or dangerous mistakes might be likely due to the design of the line. The integration of VR into Gabler’s business processes has been very lucrative for them, resulting in a 15% reduction of development time. Gabler also credits the technology with increased safety and quality, and particularly cites the ease of collaboration.
By allowing trained specialists to virtually visit a manufacturing facility, safety inspections and routine maintenance can be performed more easily, more often, and at less cost. A virtual walkthrough of a facility could easily be performed once a month or even more frequently by an expert from a manufacturing equipment developer like Gabler. The logistics of bringing a specialist on-site often mean that inspections are kept to a bare minimum. If the inspector could perform his task from his home office far away, problems could be caught much earlier before they present a loss of manufacturing time, resources, or even worker lives.
With the advent of tele-robotics, maintenance can more easily be outsourced, as well. A misbehaving machine might need the attention of the original development team, but that firm could be located half the world away. Using remote controlled robot arms and tools, delicate repairs can be performed by an expert who never leaves their office.
Finally, virtual reality can make the life of the assembly line worker much easier. Ergonomics are often far down the list of concerns at a manufacturing technology developer. They are difficult to judge by looking at schematic or onscreen model, and by the time a machine hits the prototype phase, it is often not cost-effective to make major changes that do not directly impact functionality or pose a serious safety risk.
By modeling machines in the virtual world and allowing full interaction, workers and developers can collaborate to ensure the devices are comfortable and safe to use, as well as efficient. Some engineering firms create full-scale wooden models of their manufacturing devices, but these are time-consuming to produce, and any changes to the often require an entirely new model. With virtual reality, changes made in the plans can be instantly reflected in the simulation, allowing a worker testing the device to give instant feedback, and have their feedback almost immediately incorporated.
Manufacturing is an absolutely enormous industry, and it is not shy about using new technology to effect change and improvement. As virtual reality continues to gain public mindshare and interest, more applications of VR in the manufacturing space will appear year after year.