I spent this morning watching a demonstration of Emerson’s new augmented reality (AR) platform for its PlantWeb manufacturing software. During that demonstration, two things became very clear to me. One, COVID-19 could become the driving factor in making AR more widely available in both industrial and consumer settings. And two, AR is really just a data visualization tool.
The pitch from Emerson, PTC, Microsoft, and others advocating for AR in the factory has been rooted in the fact that it can augment the capabilities of field workers by guiding them along a particular process. For example, at a demo in Microsoft’s lab about a year ago I “wired” an airplane engine using the Hololens, and during the Emerson demonstration today I watched a remote worker guide a product manager through a valve repair.
In both demos, the respective product managers highlighted the challenge that manufacturing companies have in finding experienced workers. A year ago, the focus was on a rapidly aging workforce and a dearth of experienced technicians. That’s because in the manufacturing world — even after undergoing thorough training by their employers — many employees can take another two to five years to become truly productive, a learning curve that is being threatened by older workers retiring faster then new workers are signing on.
COVID-19 adds another forcing function, in that it’s pushing older, at-risk workers to work remotely while also generally reducing the amount of staff available in plants. Augmented reality can help manufacturing companies use their experienced workers more efficiently by letting them dial into consultations with staff on the plant floor without having to fly to a site, with the added bonus that it also allows them to stay at home and stay healthy. Video consults have long been used in this space, but the addition of AR offers several more layers of information that can speed up a repair.
For example, Emerson’s integration uses AR to overlay data about all the equipment in a factory — from fire extinguishers to individual valves. When viewed through the screen of a phone or perhaps a heads-up display, each item has a label and an indicator of its overall health attached to it. If the technician on the plant floor searches for a particular part, the app can tell them to turn left and guide the technician to the faulty part. In a large plant with tens of thousands of pieces of equipment, such visual guidance is incredibly helpful.
Once the technician locates the problem device, they can check in with an expert who can look at it and suggest a fix. The details of implementing that fix get overlaid in the app to help the technician on the plant floor follow along. It’s not as much fun as catching Pokémon, but it’s a really important use case that’s becoming more important as COVID-19 takes experienced workers — and workers in general — away from the manufacturing plant floor.
So while the news these days is full of consumer-oriented AR failures, from Magic Leap’s pivot to Bose shutting down its audio AR efforts, the industrial world is ready to commit. The problem is how to put all of a company’s relevant data into an AR platform and make it easy for experts and employees to create the demonstrations or modules. As Emerson’s Peter Zornio, CTO of its Emerson Automation Solutions unit, said in today’s demo, AR is essentially just a useful data visualization platform, and the real challenge facing businesses that want to deploy it is data integration.
I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it does help explain the disconnect between how the consumer world thinks about AR (entertainment) and where the real value lies (making complicated data streams legible). In industrial environments, AR contributes to employee productivity by helping workers easily exhibit expertise, and by aggregating data in a format that helps them derive insights.
As we connect more devices and get more information, we’re going to need ways to consume that information without being overwhelmed. AR may help.