If you work in the manufacturing sector and are navigating the transition to Industry 4.0, chances are you will have heard of the potential impact that wearable technology can have on your business.

Wearables are increasingly becoming part of manufacturing’s digital transformation efforts with the promise of improved worker safety and productivity, as well as more efficient business operations.

Augmented reality is one example of a wearable technology which is playing a major part in shaping the future of the manufacturing industry. This comes as no surprise when you consider that global spending for augmented reality workforce technology is at an all-time high and forecasted to reach $23 billion by 2025. However, according to Nick Offin, head of sales, marketing, and operations at dynabook, there is another technology that is set to have a significant impact on the industry. “Assisted reality is on the cusp of transforming the sector, especially for manufacturing organisations which have a heavy reliance on frontline workers across all areas of the supply chain,” Offin says.

But what exactly is assisted reality? And how does it compare to augmented reality? Offin explains in more detail: “Differing from augmented reality and virtual reality, assisted reality (AR) refers to the projection of information into a user’s immediate field of vision, and, importantly, is hands-free. It’s unlike its more well-known cousins, which change or distort what a user is viewing, instead adding an extra layer of information.”

If you imagine a heads-up display on a high-end car, projecting navigation instructions across the windscreen, you are on the right lines. With assisted reality-enabled smart glasses, you can project diagrams, text, images, and videos, without interfering with the user’s peripheral vision.

AR in action

To fully appreciate AR’s ability to help improve productivity and workflows for workers, it is important to discuss the potential AR use cases in a range of industries and across the entire supply chain.

Let us start at the beginning of the production line, on the factory floor. For example, in automotive manufacturing, AR can help speed up operations and reduce the number of errors made by an automotive engineer when building a car. Technicians can work on a vehicle and refer to checklists, other text, or diagrams through a head-mounted viewer, keeping their hands-on the tools at all times. If they run into difficulty, they can even use a video feed to show a more senior technician and get advice to complete a task.

“The same function can be applied to the aerospace sector,” Offin adds. “If an engineer needs a second opinion during a safety-critical inspection or repair, AR smart glasses allows a wider pool of experienced people to see the situation from anywhere in the world and advise accordingly.”

In the world of manufacturing time is money, and so too is quality, so having the ability to rectify mistakes and get the job done is important. In fact, the latest Manufacturing Future Workforce report has shown how ongoing and flexible training – which can be used to upskill and reskill an existing workforce – deliver a steadier and more sustainable growth in a manufacturing workforce’s confidence and productivity.

“Once a product makes its way to the distribution warehouse, where there is typically a high rate of picking, AR smart glasses can also be used to improve logistical efficiency,” Offin explains. “For example, vision picking capabilities on AR smart glasses offer a faster, hands-free solution to help warehouse employees pick, sort and track inventories. Barcode scanning, having access to location assistance, and the use of voice conformations to run through checklists also enable next-level workflow optimisation for frontline workers.”

Challenges to AR adoption 

These diverse examples are only some of the ways in which assisted reality can help to support manufacturing businesses who are undergoing digital transformation and embracing Industry 4.0. So, if the benefits of AR adoption are clear, why aren’t all manufacturing organisations jumping on the bandwagon?

“The challenge for manufacturing firms is that many still rely on legacy systems,” Offin continues. “This infrastructure poses a major bottleneck for those looking to adopt AR-based technologies. AR creates significant amounts of data and, as a result, there is a critical need to scale IT capabilities to cope with increased strain and subsequent latency on their internal networks. It’s not just a case of ‘rip and replace’ when it comes to infrastructure either – it’s much more complicated than that.”

He believes that edge computing provides a solution to this infrastructure challenge, and that it will also be the most significant catalyst behind mass adoption of AR and other wearable technologies in general. “Edge computing allows businesses to securely and efficiently address the vast amounts of data generated by AR, while at the same time enabling new ways of analysing this data and reducing the strain on the cloud.”

Such an approach also addresses potential security concerns that manufacturers may have with internet-enabled devices such as AR smart glasses. For manufacturing organisations, intellectual property (IP) is one of the most valuable assets, with around 50 per cent of manufacturers experiencing a data breach in the past year.

“Edge computing makes it easier for cyber-attacks to be identified at an early stage and restricted to a device at the edge. Data can then be scanned and encrypted before it is sent to the core.” Offin concludes.

The pressure to keep up with innovation and evolving market demands is nothing new for manufacturers. Digital transformation is a key part to any business’s future-proofing strategy and assisted reality will play a significant role in this going forward. Having discussed the benefits and just some of the use cases this technology can provide, it is easy to see its appeal.

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