Virtual reality (VR) might be a bit of fun for consumers, but it has an important role to play in the factory of the future, with the potential to transform how products are created and how businesses are run.
While the gaming and entertainment industries are the obvious early adopters of new reality technologies (think Avatar, Matrix and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One), forward-thinking manufacturers are looking closely at how virtual reality can unlock a competitive advantage. We saw exhibitors using VR at Interpack 2017 and AUSPACK 2017 to showcase their solutions and transport people into a multi-sensory production line.
So, how far away is virtual reality in manufacturing from becoming the reality?
Virtual reality: the basics
Virtual reality is far from a new idea – cinematographer Morton Heilig patented the first VR head-mounted display in 1960. (Interestingly, the name wasn’t coined or popularised until 1987.) But what exactly is virtual reality?
Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment, or three-dimensional space, in which a person can explore, interact and do things. Essentially, computer technology is used to create a virtual world in which you are immersed and able to perform tasks. Once inside the virtual space, a person can connect and interact with all the things contained in the space in a sensory way. The computer technology creates an authentic environment, digitally.
If that’s not enough, there are the alternative realities: augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR). What are the key differences?
- Augmented reality: With AR, a user doesn’t have the same degree of immersion experienced with virtual reality. This is because AR overlays digital content onto the real world.
- Mixed reality: MR is a fusion of real and virtual worlds. So a user in a mixed-reality-world experiences something that’s been coined as a “co-presence”. The user believes the digital content is in the real world.
A new reality for manufacturing
Needless to say, VR technology has come a long way since Heilig’s headset. Manufacturers are already using various VR platforms (such as HTV Vive and Oculus Rift) and AR platforms (such as ARKit) to provide answers to some big questions.
Here’s how VR is being used in the manufacturing world:
Create new products
One of the most exceptional examples of VR in action can be found at Ford. The car manufacturer has invested heavily in its own immersion lab where engineers and designers utilise VR to interact with automotive designs. Engineers use Oculus Rift VR headsets (which began as a Kickstarter crowdfunding project) to improve automotive designs. In the VR world they examine the details of a car design and simulate the car’s performance in different road and weather conditions. By linking VR to Computer Aided Design (CAD) technology, Ford can also make rapid changes to designs and easily visualise the outcomes before putting the results into production.
Make informed decisions
VR makes it easier to analyse data and visualise the outcomes in a real world. By working the data in a virtual world, analysts gain hands-on experience that provides a deeper understanding of results. It means analysts can identify solutions in minutes rather than running weeks of numbers and analytics.
Identify potential manufacturing problems at design stage
By designing and simulating production-line processes in a virtual environment, manufacturers can identify bottlenecks, design errors and weak spots before making major capital investments. This is a potentially huge advantage when it comes to saving costs and reducing waste, because problems can be eliminated in the development stage. To give a taste of how this might work, one exhibitor, tna, gave Interpack 2017 visitors the chance to go on a “virtual ride” where they could fully immerse themselves in the production process of a complete potato-chip line.
Identify potential hazardous elements in the workflow
Safety is paramount in any production processes and assembly lines, which is why more manufacturers are turning to VR for process simulation. As part of an injury-avoidance strategy that has resulted in significantly reduced employee injuries, Ford incorporates VR into a number of its design and manufacturing lines.
Simulate situations for training purposes
Predicting how people will react in challenging circumstances is a tricky business. But BAE Systems has created a VR world that allows simulation of hazardous events such as spills or machinery failures. This means their employees can experience and learn how to react appropriately to a range of hazardous circumstances while in a safe virtual world. BAE Systems also create virtual representations of projects, ship interiors, etc., so their engineers can practice, analyse, design and strategise before making things a reality.
Manufacturers are doing the same for their production lines. They are creating a “digital twin” for the production line, which acts in the same way as a flight simulator for pilots. By giving operators a “virtual trial run”, they can become more familiar with the properties and potential of various systems in a targeted manner. If it’s found that there are still bugs or glitches in the system, they can be remedied without causing downtime to the real processing line.
The bottom line: virtual reality in manufacturing is very real
Using VR and augmented reality (AR), it’s possible to accurately simulate daily operations in a production line to help train new operators, envisage new production lines and improve maintenance. We saw all this on display at Interpack 2017. It’s still early days for the technology, and hence its adoption by manufacturers and suppliers, but the potential is very real and the benefits are tangible, so it’s no wonder that uni graduates with VR knowledge are already highly sought after as the next generation of engineering and manufacturing recruits.
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Image credit: iStock / Murat Göçmen