How Augmented Reality Is Transforming the Manufacturing Industry

Opinion

For many Americans, the manufacturing industry brings to mind images of Industrial Revolution-era factories, World War II assembly lines, or perhaps even outsourced workshops overseas. But that picture is outdated.

The truth is that the advanced technologies that are changing modern life are also revolutionizing the manufacturing industry in ways that are not yet widely understood. Since today is National Manufacturing Day, it’s the perfect time to showcase a technology that is truly transforming the industry and driving new opportunities for manufacturing in our country: augmented reality.

Augmented reality technology makes complex processes simple by placing the right information in the right place at the right time. It is particularly useful in the automotive industry, where automakers and suppliers manage a great deal of product variation and customization, often building parts for multiple vehicles on the same factory line. Equally important—particularly for healthcare manufacturers building life-saving medical devices—is the technology’s ability to fully document and trace each part built. That means that every item is guaranteed to be built perfectly, every time.

By implementing advanced augmented reality technology into established manufacturing and assembly processes, manufacturers are reducing costs, increasing efficiencies, and improving outcomes as a whole—and changing the landscape of American manufacturing. For example, an overhead mounted projector-based augmented reality system projects a digital operating “canvas” directly onto almost any work surface, providing audio and visual prompts, guidance, pacing, and direction and providing real-time confirmation that each step was completed correctly.

In this day and age, every industry in the manufacturing sector is seeking for ways to cut costs while improving quality. It’s an ambitious goal, but advances in technology are providing the much-needed leap to usher in vast improvements to common practices and standardize complex processes. By simplifying steps, using visual cues and confirming quality, augmented reality systems can allow for greater flexibility in production without the added risk for error. Its strength is its unique ability to simplify the varied and complex tasks involved in the modern manufacturing and assembly processes, reduce risk, and to bring to life the parts, pieces and products that are part of 21st century life.

An augmented reality guidance system can be mobile as well, able to move, scale, and integrate with equipment already at work on a factory floor. Manufacturing tools like programmable machine vision cameras, laser trackers, robots, and torque guns can be incorporated seamlessly to provide precision confirmation that tasks like pipe alignment, bolt sequencing, and tightening are performed correctly. A projection-based guidance system can place blueprints, instructional videos, and even a virtual tape measure for key steps directly onto the work surface, and right in front of the operator’s eye.

Supervisors can connect the augmented reality system to their cell phones and receive an update as soon as an error occurs, which in turn can drive efficiencies and identify bottlenecks. Additionally, the system automatically collects key process data, such as serial numbers, cycle times, date/time stamps, error quantity, and web cam pictures of each step in real time. The ability to measure cycle time at each step ensures that potential issues are identified quickly, while supporting a “lean” process and procedural improvements.

One of the most valuable qualities of an augmented reality system is that it can solve fundamental challenges for any number of diverse industries. For example, a common challenge for automotive manufacturers is the high degree of variation between similar components needed to assemble a vehicle. The differences in the parts are often subtle but have a large impact on functionality, and can translate into costly mistakes when mislabeled or misidentified. This issue is also crucial for the assembly of medical devices, many of which are complex and customized with an even greater degree of variation. It’s important to fit the right door to the right vehicle and critical to fit knee or hip implants to an individual patient.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of utilizing augmented reality technology in manufacturing is not only that it reduces errors and drives efficiencies, but that it makes American workers more productive, keeps manufacturing jobs alive, and provides a tool to bring jobs lost to other countries back to the Unites States. That’s because unlike many automated systems, augmented reality integrates human intelligence with software, operating in collaboration with a real, live person.

An augmented reality system can eliminate the need for monitor-based or written work instructions, allowing personnel to keep their eyes on the task at hand rather than on a cumbersome manual. An intelligent and intuitive augmented reality guidance system brings an increased level of engagement in the manual assembly process and pairs the best of human ingenuity and ability with the precision of technology—and that’s exactly what we need to get the country’s manufacturing sector humming.

Paul Ryznar is founder, president, and CEO of OPS Solutions, an augmented reality company in Southeast Michigan. Follow @lightguidesys

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