The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled manufacturing organizations worldwide to collaborate seamlessly across geographical boundaries, receive on-demand assistance in their operations, make informed decisions and provide recommendations with contextual information, and prepare them to work with next-generation smart machines in a rapidly changing workspace. We believe that extended reality (XR) solutions can address these business challenges, as they not only enhance the operational resilience of manufacturers but also make them future-ready. IDC predicts that worldwide spending towards XR will increase to USD72.8 billion by 2024.
The adoption of XR solutions is steadily increasing across the manufacturing industry value chain, manifested by the business value they deliver, as illustrated below:
- New product introduction – Geographically distributed product design teams can collaborate and finalize blueprints for new products using digital models without co-locating and working with expensive physical models.
- Supply chain management – Powered by computer vision, warehouse operators benefit from vision-based assistance for order picking, which increases productivity and error-proofs operations.
- Manufacturing operations – Guided assistance with animated 2D or 3D visuals immensely improves the effectiveness of the workforce in complex product assemblies. Automation in defect detection and effective defect evidence management in the quality inspection process reduces the cost of product quality.
- Marketing and sales – Immersive product visualizations and interactive product demos provide a try-before-buy experience to customers and optimize the buying cycle time.
- Maintenance and repair – Remote collaboration solutions enable service technicians and frontline workers to connect with remote experts. They not only lower the service cost but also improve the first-time fix rate (FTTR), increasing customer satisfaction.
- Training – Re-skilling or upskilling through immersive and engaging training significantly lowers the training time and infrastructure cost. This also improves the operational safety, productivity, and effectiveness of new hires and the existing workforce.
Emerging technologies reshaping XR solutions
Through standardization and development simplification, new digital technologies are changing the XR solution space. These changes lead to reduced development costs, faster time-to-market thanks to industry-specific cloud services and appliances, and smart devices with enhanced features. We believe XR solutions will impact the following areas in the manufacturing industry:
- New product introduction – Inbuilt device sensors such as light detection and ranging (LiDAR) in cameras and photogrammetric applications have simplified photo-realistic digital model creation. Augmented reality (AR) content authoring platforms have emerged, allowing the import of such digital models to author animated AR content overlays without writing any code.
- Manufacturing operations – Video streams from AR devices are analyzed to error-proof complex product assembly operations and auto-detect hidden defects in near real-time to improve product quality. These are driven by appliances and services launched by cloud platforms that detect these anomalies using computer vision by enabling artificial intelligence (AI) on the edge. Besides this, on-device machine learning (ML) models, which are energy-efficient and guarantee privacy, security, and low latency, can transform XR devices into smart devices. These can be applied in various use cases such as gesture tracking, speech recognition, and computer vision.
Another XR solution in manufacturing operations is far-field voice recognition technology. Typically, the workforce on the ground in a manufacturing plant seldom have their hands free to type in search queries. Voice-enabled search helps them overcome this challenge thanks to precise keyword detection even in a noisy ambiance. Voice-enabled search extracts on-demand contextual information from enterprise repositories and overlays them on the field of view (FOV) of the workforce, resulting in faster task completion.
- Marketing and sales – XR solutions allow customers to customize products and know the exact price through configure price quote (CPQ) capabilities offered by manufacturing industry-specific cloud services.
- Maintenance and repair – Adaptive bitrate streaming of collaborative video sessions and the ability to function offline allow the use of remote collaboration solutions even in locations with limited to no internet connection. Combined with AI on-device or on the edge, these solutions also offer AR-based visual self-service assistance, resulting in faster issue resolution.
Manufacturing cloud – Cloud services help manufacturers monitor smart equipment remotely and derive valuable insights based on historical and operational data. Armed with this on-demand information on their XR devices, frontline workers can intervene in a timely manner and avoid unplanned downtime.
- Training – With the introduction of pass-through application programming interfaces (APIs), virtual reality (VR) headsets could seamlessly blend the real and the virtual worlds. This feature will provide situational awareness during immersive training sessions and open possibilities of mixed reality experiences.
XR and the future of manufacturing
In addition to the applications above, the XR space is witnessing advancements such as web extended reality (WebXR), which delivers the benefits of XR through the browser itself with zero initial investments on devices and portability. The metaverse is another phenomenon that has attracted the interest of manufacturers. XR is a key element in the industrial metaverse which enables visualization and interaction with it. It offers manufacturers a photo-realistic virtual shopfloor and allows teleporting of geographically separated users to collaborate on optimizing line design, worker safety, ergonomics, and more.
Besides these advancements in technology, standardizing XR applications can help manufacturers provide their customers with cross-platform experiences. One such standardized application is OpenXR, a royalty-free API. It empowers vendors to standardize their hardware to a platform-agnostic software development kit (SDK) and enable XR applications to run on a wide range of hardware platforms without re-writing the code.
As XR technologies become more pervasive, enterprises need to keep their privacy and security policies up to date with the latest practices. The Extended Reality Safety Initiative (XRSI) privacy framework provides a baseline set of standards, guidelines, and regulation-agnostic practices to secure XR solutions.
XR is enabling manufacturers to realize business value and achieve growth by reimagining the sales experience, allowing customers to see products in a whole new light.