Technological progress has always been a significant driver of industrial productivity and development for thousands of years. Right from the First Industrial Revolution where the concept of manufacturing machines enabled quicker and easier output, facilitating innovation to the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions propelled by electrical systems, and ultimately computers and electronics that fuelled increased output through automation and connectivity.
These technological advances, however, were only incremental particularly compared to the developments that altered information technology, mobile communications, and e-commerce. Today, we are in the center of the fourth wave of technological development; a shift that may be a culmination of technological improvements in sensors, machines and information technology that connects the whole value chain.
The revolution that we all know and have heard of as Industry 4.0 will change the way we interact with machines and humans. It will enable manufacturing to be more efficient, of higher quality, at a quicker pace and more flexible. It will also alter the future of the workforce, boost productivity and foster growth and development.
Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are important pillars of Industry 4.0. Here’s a quick introduction for those of you who are not well-versed with the terms. Augmented Reality (AR) is described as superimposing computer-generated inputs such as sound, video, graphics, or GPS data on a real-world setting or items enabling users to access information otherwise impossible. Users can typically use mobile phones, heads up display or goggles. Virtual reality (VR) is described as a computer-generated 3D environment that can be explored and interacted with by a viewer. The viewer is completely immersed within the environment and can interact with the environment and the objects within. Users may typically need to use special devices such as a virtual reality headset.
From improved worker safety to increased efficiency and effectiveness in process and product design, VR is already impacting a lot of functions across manufacturing organizations.
Traditional safety training OSHA courses, toolbox talks, and inspections are important and necessary. However, VR allows simulating hazardous, dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations eliminating potential risks. Providing a hands-on approach in simulated real-life situations is more beneficial when it is in addition to classroom training.
Generally, operators go through training, both theoretical and hands-on, before they go on the assembly line, but it takes time for them to be productive and efficient. Using VR, the sequence of assembly steps in a virtual environment provides employees an opportunity to interact, view, inspect and gain information about assembly parts. Operators can perform tasks by memorizing the correct sequence of steps. The system also can be coded in a way to indicate potential errors and make it an engaging experience.
Organizations today struggle with a high turnover rate, unavailability of skilled resources, retiring workers and a widening skills gap which impacts performance. With VR some of these challenges can be addressed at the core. Trainees can complete a series of necessary tasks, such as tool selection, removal of nuts and bolts, among others. Trainees can get help in a VR experience and the program can capture and maintain insights on their performance.
Designing products or shop floors is an iterative process, a series of steps in a process that ultimately lead to a real, tangible outcome. Previously cardboard, paper, foam, etc., were used to build prototypes. With the advent of 3D printing, things changed but with VR the change is multi-fold. Designers view, test and interact with ideas even before a physical prototype. VR allows designers to make multiple iterations, explore variants in a shorter period before building a prototype. Today, organizations are designing and simulating production/manufacturing lines virtually to detect bottlenecks and decrease rework costs before any physical work begins. In my view, VR has begun to have more of an impact on manufacturing organizations than previously considered. Results are already being seen in organizations that have already leveraged VR — be it in employee abilities, turnaround times, etc. Globally too, the acceptance of VR is continuously growing. India’s technology and digitally savvy youth generation are paving the way to ensure that Industry 4.0 is not a dream, but a reality.
Technology is a means to an end. Only when technology is combined with creative and solution-oriented mindsets powered by forward-looking organizations, will we able to co-create novel solutions to counter the distinct and unique problems experienced.