Co-founder of Dozuki, the leading knowledge management platform for manufacturers to capture, control, and centralize essential information.
The appeal of augmented reality (AR) has excited businesses across industries, but for manufacturing, the hype exceeds the practical application.
Sales of AR glasses are forecast to reach roughly 26 million units by 2023, and there are no signs of sales slowing down. Amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, the potential applications of AR devices have grown even further. As The Wall Street Journal noted: “Across multiple industries, augmented reality, or AR, has transitioned during the pandemic from intriguing experiment to everyday tool.”
But how realistic is using AR in the manufacturing workforce? While the technology shows great promise, a more practical look at AR devices in real manufacturing environments suggests we’re still a long way off. AR signals a potential disruption for instruction and training in manufacturing, but when the industry benchmark is still using paper manuals and over-the-shoulder training, making the leap straight to AR is more fantasy than reality.
Lack Of Front-Line Worker Confidence
Hands-free AR devices in manufacturing environments are certainly appealing for those seeking innovation, but the reality is that much of the current workforce could lack the confidence or skills to operate AR devices properly. AR devices sound appealing at first, but front-line workers have to interact with the device somehow.
Since the release of the first iPhone in 2007, touchscreen devices have taken over a decade to gain widespread adoption and standardization. Pinch to zoom, swipe to scroll, double-tap — these are all standardized and learned behaviors that we take for granted today.
Given that most people don’t interact with AR headsets on a regular basis, learning to interact with foreign technology may be an uphill battle for not only front-line workers but the operation and training managers who are tasked with leveraging them for their intended use.
Manufacturing leaders who have previously introduced advanced technology to their workforce know that the best chances for success are standardized interactions that workers are already familiar with. Without this, most workers could be slow to adapt and might require constant training to use the technology effectively.
Operating AR Technology In Mixed Environments
In manufacturing, environments can vary from sub-zero temperatures to sweltering climates complete with flying sparks. AR devices face a variety of challenges if they are to hold up to the extreme conditions present in many industrial environments.
Current AR devices allow the user to interact with two primary means of communication — gestures and voice commands. Researchers from Iowa State University have investigated the use of voice command as a technique, and while it does seem to be effective in certain situations, they concluded that “loud industrial environments may cause interference with auditory feedback and verbal input methods.” The report found that personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, helmets and masks, may interfere with gesture recognition as well.
Uncomfortable AR Headsets
Many in the manufacturing workforce have workloads that involve heavy lifting and strain from repetitive tasks. Asking employees to wear an AR headset throughout their shift is a considerable request. A change like that to their work attire may interfere with a variety of tasks and put workers under undue stress or even conflict with safety requirements.
The Iowa State report also noted that workers surveyed in a 2016 Swedish study claimed that — although it was nice to have their hands free using AR headsets — it was “difficult to wear with glasses and it felt heavy after wearing for a long period of time.”
Dynamic Information Display Can Cause Confusion
Among the main challenges for AR interfaces is how and when to direct user attention to the instructional content. If information pops up too soon or in the wrong context, this display method can cause confusion and create safety risks.
For instance, some visuals are only triggered when you’re looking at a designated object or specific direction. In constantly changing industrial environments, displaying information with visual cues can be problematic. This concern is less of a risk with print or traditional digital instructions because the information is not location-dependent.
A Practical Approach To AR In Manufacturing
Workforce transformations are hard, and digital transformations are even harder. A report done by McKinsey & Company found that less than 30% of companies that attempt digital transformation are successful.
It’s important to keep in mind that digital transformation is an evolution, not a revolution. Most proponents would consider AR to be the end of this evolution. To better achieve transformation goals, it can be helpful to focus on the fundamentals before taking on an advanced system like AR.
AR may need some time before manufacturers are ready to dive into adoption, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth dismissing entirely. Instead, the focus should remain on the next stage of your digital transformation and progress from there.
As you start your efforts to digitize work instructions, there are a few useful tips to keep in mind:
• Take inventory of your existing instructions with a quick audit. From there, it can be easier to identify quick wins as you aim to improve.
• Look for a software tool that allows you to create, control and distribute digital instructions from one place. This can be tricky, as some tools focus only on distribution when the control and management features really become more important as you scale your efforts.
• Once you start your digital work instruction authoring, it’s best to capture process knowledge where the work is done — on the shop floor. Including photos and videos of expert workers executing tasks can make preserving passing on valuable knowledge much easier. By nature, humans are visual learners.
Ultimately, AR is a means to present information in a new way, but that information still needs to be documented, accurate and easy to consume for the manufacturing workforce — these are the fundamentals. Focus transformation efforts by creating a body of digital work instructions, SOPs and training materials that workers can become familiar with and learn to trust. From there, identifying technologies to share those instructions with can become much more attainable. This way, when the time for AR comes, manufacturing will be ready.