How Manufacturers Use Augmented Reality on the Shop Floor

Emerging and Advanced Technologies for Manufacturing in 2020

Middle to right: Chandra Brown, Jason T. Ray, Mike Walton

The FABTECH Expo is North America’s largest metal forming, fabricating, welding and finishing event. It was a pretty cool expo. There were large machines that demonstrated how they cut different material.

I attended the panel, Leadership Exchange – Emerging & Advanced Technologies for Manufacturing in 2020. On the panel were Jason T. Ray (Co-founder & CEO of Paperless Parts, Inc.), Chandra Brown (CEO of MxD), and Mike Walton (Industry Solution Executive at Microsoft). I was excited for this panel because Mike Walton has been an mentor since my consulting days at Atos.

Augmented and virtual reality officially entered the realm of digital transformation.

I was surprised by the number of questions from the audience about virtual reality and augmented reality in manufacturing. Questions about immersive technology where brought up numerous times during the panel conversation.

We know from Cincy Startup Week that manufacturers use augmented reality glasses to assist operators in fixing machines without having to find or lug operating manuals around. That example came up again at FABTECH.

Mike Walton called it, “remote assist”. With the Hololens, operators can point out how to repair equipment without the need of paper manuals. Programs loaded onto the Hololens coach operators on how to fix machines.

It makes me wonder, if the Hololens machinist coach will turn into Google Maps, where people drove off the road into lakes and fields because Maps told them too.

Another example for augmented reality in manufacturing is in the interview process. Hiring managers use simulations in the Hololens to test job applicants. The program is used to test job applicants. Each simulations is harder than the last so managers can see if the applicants improved each level or not. This lets managers know before they hire someone if that person is able to learn on the job and how quickly..

Augmented reality is more than visual displays

robot dinosaur FABTECH 2019

Augmented Reality Touch

Mike Walton told a story of a machine operator who was killed because they didn’t realize the machine was still running. The plant had cameras watching the machine but they weren’t able to pick up enough detail.

After the tragic death, the plant knew they needed to try something else. They installed sensors on the equipment that notify operators of its status based on the sound of the equipment. The sensors can detect if the equipment is running more finitely than a person or camera. That’s a powerful use of augmented reality.

Augmented Reality Sound

Walton gave another example of artificial intelligence audio instructions that enable people with down syndrome to work on the manufacturing floor.

This is great because it diversifies who can work in manufacturing. One of the themes of the panel was scarcity of people to work in plants and the need for a diversified workforce in manufacturing. Technology like A.I. audio opens work in manufacturing to more people.

When will augmented reality be a commodity in manufacturing?

One audience member brought up the point that working in a factory is dirty, sweaty business. I can confirm. During one MES project, we found that an operator at an oiling station couldn’t use the work instructions on the screen because her gloves were oily and the screen didn’t register the touch.

Glasses and head-mounted AR visors solve that problem put it doesn’t help with sweat in the eyes. Walton suggested that plants start small. Use AR and VR interfaces for non-sweaty, non-hard hat jobs. He said we’re about 5-8 years away from the hardware reaching peak form factor. Already, the Hololens 2 is smaller and more versatile than the original.

Do you think augmented reality and artificial intelligence will lead to a diversified workforce? Have you seen it in use first hand? Let me know in the comments below!


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