Augmented Reality: All Eyes on Industrial Applications

Three months into the release of Pokémon Go, there is a good chance you have bumped into one of its estimated 100 million players. The game’s hype may be short-lived, but there is no denying that it has taken the world by storm. What is less commented on is that this represents the first major consumer breakthrough for augmented reality (AR). Indeed, one of the game’s innovations is to layer fictional characters on top of the reality captured by your smartphone camera.

Back in real life, we are noticing an increasing use of augmented reality in industrial settings. In most cases, AR is a cost efficiency play, helping the workforce complete their tasks faster, with less errors and more accountability. Two use cases we are particularly excited about are warehouse logistics and assembly line manufacturing.

The Augmented Warehouse

A Volkswagen factory worker using Ubimax smart glasses (source: sam houd media)
A Volkswagen factory worker using Ubimax smart glasses (source: sam houd media)

On most warehouse floors, workers still use paper checklists and handheld scanners to keep track of orders to be picked. Locating items in large, complex warehouses and transporting them to the correct loading docks is a time-consuming and inefficient process that makes for 55 to 65% of warehouse costs (or 11 to 13% of total logistics costs, according to a report by DHL). Logistics companies have tried making this process more efficient using pick-to-light, or voice-directed systems. However, these are costly, as they require large hardware installations, and the pay-back time can be long. AR could prove a much better alternative, with the only hardware being the warehouse worker’s headset.

A young company from Belgium, Evolar, is breaking into this market. Working off smart glasses hardware from Vuzix and Epsom, the company has built SmartPick, an application that allows warehouse workers to locate objects to be picked, hands-free, and to sort piles of packages into different bins. With 15 deployments to date, including with TNT, it is gaining interesting traction. A larger competitor, Germany-based Ubimax, has been developing similar solutions for DHL.

The Augmented Assembly Line

When manually assembling a product, flipping through paper manuals for instructions is time-consuming, and often diagrams in manuals do not provide an accurate representation of the task at hand. AR can layer on real-time instructions for assembly, and superimpose digital models over the physical pieces that workers are handling. Instructions can be accessed through headsets, which leave employees’ hands free to continue working. ScopeAR, a Canadian company developing AR tools for the assembly line, conducted a trial comparing the time to assemble a spring-loaded hatch (a 30-step process) using 3D AR instructions versus paper instructions. Workers who used the augmented instructions were 30% faster and three times more accurate, according to a case study put out by the company.

Along the assembly line, AR can also help with error detection. The recall of manufactured goods due to defects is a serious problem, especially when those defects influence safety. AR devices, including smart glasses, can scan objects on an assembly line for errors. This is done by superimposing an image of what the object should be onto the actual object and looking for misalignment. Boeing’s partnership with AR start-up NGRAIN, for instance, is aimed at lowering error rates with this process.

A Fast-Moving Space

Enterprise AR is a promising and fast-moving space. Smart glasses hardware is becoming cheaper and more available. Coding for those platforms is getting easier too, as they typically run on Android. As a result, many software companies are emerging and building applications for specific use cases. While some hardware innovators such as DAQRI, Atheer or Magic Leap are getting much attention and funding, software opportunities may also be just as interesting plays for industry-oriented investors. Watch this space!

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