AR is poised to bring major improvements in industrial efficiency, making phones and tablets obsolete.
There’s been a lot of effort to improve productivity and reduce costs by bringing smart phones and tablets into the industrial world. But Bob Meads is predicting that in just a few years, these handhelds will fade away as industrial companies migrate to wearable headsets and augmented reality (AR).
A number of leading companies like Apple, RealWear and Microsoft are ramping up a range of AR glasses, leveraging advanced technologies to give users a good visual experience. This change, along with the emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the drive to greater mobility, will prompt a huge transition in many industrial facilities.
“Industrial AR is only going to deliver the best return on investment if it is employed on wearable devices so the user’s hands are free. That’s why the smart phone will die,” says Meads, CEO of iQagent Inc., a Georgia-based company that specializes in industrial AR. “A lot of companies are throwing lots of money at the technology. We’re close to the point where wearables will be able to identify and deliver content that’s relevant to what’s in your field of view.”
Meads dives into the three closely-intertwined technologies in a Webinar, Enterprise Mobility, IIOT and Augmented Reality: What the death of the smartphone will mean to the plant floor.
Together, the three technologies are greater than the sum of their parts, Meads explains. IIoT provides plenty of flexibility, making it easier to gather and share information from smart devices. It helps enable mobility, which lets authorized employees throughout the company access a wealth of data that’s relevant to their job.
AR provides a user interface to enhance the value of enterprise mobility and leverage the wealth of data available via plant processes. That can bring major benefits in efficiency, particularly when systems are being reconfigured or when failures inevitably arise.
With AR and wearables, less-trained personnel can often perform at a higher level, so downtime can be minimized. Now, only specialized personnel can troubleshoot most issues. That’s a problem when they’re off duty or otherwise away from the worksite, it often takes a fair amount of time to come to the plant, analyze the problem and make necessary adjustments.
With AR and wearable headsets, an operator who’s not well-trained in the nuances of the plant floor equipment can look at the problem area, call up information like schematics, optimal operating parameters and other helpful data points to determine what’s wrong. The AR system can walk the operator through a number of steps to find the issue, then guide him or her by displaying step-by-step maintenance processes.
Once AR and wearables become more commonplace, they may also help companies with information flow on their plant floor. Giving workers mobility can help them set up equipment and check on operating levels from anywhere in the plant.
“AR is changing the parameter of how people view data,” Meads says. “It opens up all the data that normally only engineers and operators see so everyone can see it, from executives to maintenance people.”
He predicts that the changes will start coming next year. Microsoft is coming out with a new version of its HoloLens headset, and Apple is expected to unveil its long-awaited AR-enabled wearables. A number of other suppliers are also ramping up their capabilities, with plans to bring out more advanced systems over the next several months. A number of software companies, including iQagent, are also continuing to push the envelope with more advanced programs.
“The next 18 months will make a lot of difference. When Apple’s product hits, it will be a game changer, just like the iPhone and iPad. Microsoft is expected to make some significant advances with its 3rd generation headset, and there are several other companies that offer good products for industrial applications,” Meads says. My prediction is that in 18 months to two years, you’ll see a big change.”
One of the key aspects of any technical undertaking is to ensure that all the data in the system is accurate. It’s fairly easy to move the company’s relevant information into the AR system. iQagent uses a range of standards.
“AR is not a solution, it’s a tool. You can use open standards to get the data you need,” Meads says. “To interact with the processes, we use OPC-UA, which is a more secure version of OPC. People can also use OPC-DA and ODBC. Most PLCs and systems like databases can communicate via OPC. We also have an open server architecture to allow more interfaces, like MQTT.”
The iQagent app works well with Siemens systems, the company is a Siemens Solution Partner. Together, the two are currently helping a number of Fortune 100 companies move forward with AR technology. Pharmaceuticals and automotive are among the industries that are aggressively rolling out programs, Meads says.
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