Photo: Reuters
The fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) builds on the convergence of several innovative technologies. One of the most powerful features of the 4IR is the smart connections and rich data, which can be used to improve decision-making.

But to enhance the quality of decision-making the information must be relevant and displayed at the right time and place.

This is exactly what Augmented Reality (AR) aims to do. AR creates an augmented world by overlaying real-time, virtual information (text, graphics, or audio) on the physical or real world by adding various information layers over a live camera feed into a headset display or other smart device. This creates a mixed reality so that the user can be in touch with both the real and virtual worlds and receive context sensitive, real-time information without having to consult a computer or look up from the work they are doing.

Over the past few years AR has introduced many advantages to industry. It enables engineers and technicians wearing AR glasses or a headset to receive relevant real-time information from the work they are performing. AR is also very useful in fault diagnosis since numerous Internet of Things (IoT) sensors could provide valuable information on the functioning of a machine or plant.

In the era of Cyber-Physical Interfaces, AR is one of the human-machine interfaces with the greatest potential of improving the efficiency of manufacturing. Together with Artificial Intelligence (AI), robots, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 3D printing, AR will play a significant role in the smart factory of the future. What makes AR somewhat different from other technologies is that a human remains the driver of the operation.

Many companies realised the value of AR systems in enhancing business operations or establishing a smart factory. The first applications of AR in companies were the virtual display of manuals and instructions on headsets, remote expert guidance, training, and customer self-service. The uses of AR later expanded to include quality assurance, assembly instructions, and a performance dashboard.

One of the fastest growing areas for AR is in engineering and manufacturing. For instance, Ford uses the Microsoft HoloLens headset to design cars in augmented reality.

HoloLens allows designers to quickly model changes to vehicles by seeing the changes on top of an existing physical vehicle, instead of using the traditional clay model.

Boeing uses AR glasses powered by Skylight in the assembly process to guide technicians in the complex wiring of aircraft. AR provides technicians with real-time, hands-free, interactive 3D wiring diagrams right before their eyes.

Previously technicians had to interpret 2D drawings of about 6-metre length, commit the image to their mind and then attempt to wire the aircraft based on this mental model. As a result Boeing reported that AR improved productivity in wiring harness assembly by 40percent and lowered error rates to nearly zero.

Thyssenkrupp uses AR for field maintenance and equipped its elevator repair engineers with Microsoft HoloLens so they can see schematics inside the display or communicate with colleagues back at the office, all while leaving their hands free to work.

Due to the use of AR the average troubleshooting time has come down from two hours to 20 minutes.

Asahi Beverages is using AR glasses to allow almost-instant access to specialist support when remote production equipment breaks down. Previously, technical specialists often had to fly out to fix remote problems, resulting in expensive delays in the process where every minute is worth many dollars in lost production.

AR glasses worn by local operators enable specialists to see the problem and provide expert advice. This led to a significant decrease in the cost of plant repairs.

Due to the success, Asahi is expanding the use of AR to the display of automated instructions and guiding the worker through the process for standard maintenance procedures. This enables them to reduce their reliance on costly specialists.

Lockheed Martin engineers use Microsoft HoloLens headsets for the building of Nasa’s Orion spacecraft that is designed to travel to Mars. Traditionally the engineers will start with a 3000-page file with the instructions for the building of a specific aspect of the spacecraft.

Usually the technician will consult the file, lookup the tables, find the correct fastener, and memorise the torque setting before actually tightening the fastener on the spacecraft. Then quality assurance has to verify the work before they can continue. This process was tedious, slow, costly and prone to errors.

Now a Microsoft HoloLens headset displays (hands free) step-by-step instructions and information. When done, the technician merely takes a picture for quality assurance and continues working.

AR brought about an 85percent reduction in training time and an improvement of 42percent to 46percent in manufacturing time.

Due to the huge investments by Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Snap in small and light AR headsets that are able to project digital images on to the real world, it is possible that the next era of computing will probably be worn on people’s faces. This will be the time when anyone will be able to access the right information to perform the right set of skills, whenever and wherever they need it.

We will be living in a world of instant and on-demand experts with much less need for training.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist [email protected]