AR: A Natural Fit for Plant Floor Challenges

Much has been made recently of how Augmented Reality will soon merge our digital lives with our real ones, bestowing new powers to our social and working existence. Recent advances in technology have lulled us into believing that AR in the workplace is just around the corner. Many of us have looked forward to high-tech glasses, watches and other wearables finally delivering that promise, inspired by viral YouTube videos (here, and here ) showing workers wearing glasses with full field of vision AR displays. However, this has yet to materialize.

The recent withdrawal of Google Glass and the general failure of wearables to meet expectations have influenced public perception of enterprise AR as falling rapidly from Gartner, Inc.’s Peak of Inflated Expectations into the Trough of Disillusionment. 

AR Is a Natural Fit for Solving Plant Floor Challenges

Gartner has pigeonholed AR technology into the digital marketing niche. This is possibly the result of highly visible and successful AR brand engagement campaigns, such as for sports teams, automobile companies and even business-to-business marketing. The Augmented Reality feature provided in the IKEA catalog companion application demonstrates how AR can be useful as well as drive consumer brand engagement. These campaigns and useful applications primarily address the outward-facing communication needs of the brands and are measured in terms of greater sales or customer loyalty.

Turning towards business operations, those of us involved in the manufacturing and automation field see AR as a way to address many plant floor challenges. Here are a few examples of common plant floor issues, which we believe are a natural fit for enhancement with mobile AR.

Plant Floor Problem

How AR Helps

1.     When following a procedure, workers often spend time trying to identify the part of the machine or adjustment point that requires their attention.

Visually identify and direct workers to the specific part or adjustment port that requires their attention.

2.     Workers performing an unfamiliar or infrequent task spend time searching in manuals for procedures that match the task or asking for help from co-workers.

Provide contextual visual instructions to show workers how to correctly perform unfamiliar tasks. 

3.     Workers spend time searching for data and resources that uniquely identify the equipment on which they are working.

Identify equipment or processes and visually display relevant data and resources.

4.     Technical resources required to evaluate and efficiently respond to unplanned downtime events are not available in real time.

Provide visual communication tools to provide users and remote resources with a common, real time or “snap shot” view of the equipment or process.

Table: Potential AR Solutions to common plant floor problems

It’s very tempting for an engineering team to develop an eye-catching AR application for a demonstration and to suggest that the technology also easily addresses more complex problems. These solutions are usually implemented by experts using software toolkits, rather than implementing commercial off-the-shelf software. The final implementations delivered for the customer are usually highly customized. In these cases, ROI is difficult to define. iQagent’s approach to solving plant floor problems with AR involves first focusing on the problems to be solved, and then defining a good mobile AR solution to address the challenge.

Interventions are Collaborative Endeavors

One challenge we address is #4 from the table above: technical resources required to evaluate and efficiently respond to unplanned downtime events are not available in real time.

Production downtime costs are often measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars per minute. When a production line goes down, the operator must communicate with remote technical resources in order to get production running again quickly. One factor preventing effective communication is the education gap between the operator and engineer; operators aren’t engineers, and engineers aren’t used to operating the equipment through all phases of the process. Each has specialized technical and procedural knowledge that can contribute to a solution, but traditional channels such as phone, text or e-mail aren’t perfect tools for collaboration. The operator must decide which details are important to convey to the engineer, and the engineer must find the right questions to ask in order to get a clear picture of the problem. Due to the prohibitive cost of production downtime, this effort has a very small window in which to be effective. At some point, the decision must be made to get the human resource on-site in order to return the line to normal production.

We then considered why engineers and operators are more efficient in resolving production downtime issues when collaborating in person. The operator can directly show the problem to the engineer, referring to live process values and performance indicators relevant to the process from the local automation system. The engineer can analyze the problem in real time, asking the right questions of the operator in order to resolve the problem.

A successful mobile solution duplicates the benefits of in-person collaboration, allowing each participant to effectively contribute their specialized knowledge to a common view of the process, including live data and operational details from the automation systems that are relevant to the problem.

This particular solution is a great fit for AR-enhanced software on a mobile device.

Augmented Reality with iQagent

iQagent uses the device’s video camera to identify a unique piece of equipment by scanning a QR code. The software overlays relevant process values and associated data on the camera’s displayed video feed, which can also be recorded as a snapshot or video. This provides a common view of the process required. Operators can also annotate directly on the images or video, making notes and drawing attention to areas of interest for the engineer to analyze, in effect “showing” the problem. When finished, the user saves and e-mails the video to the remote technician, who now has a much more complete picture of the problem, and in many cases, can resolve the issues more efficiently.

We feel iQagent is a great solution to some common plant floor challenges. But having a great product isn’t an end but a beginning. To make any product a success, you have to get it in front of users who need it, and you must support and continually improve the product. This is why we joined the AR for Enterprise Alliance. The AREA enables us to collaborate with other like-minded AR solution providers, end users and customers. Through education, research and collaboration, we will help to move AR out of the Trough of Disillusionment, up the Slope of Enlightenment and onto the Plateau of Productivity.

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