• At PTC LiveWorks 2019, augmented reality (AR) in the business segment (especially the manufacturing vertical) was a big theme, supported by customers on panels, and featured with compelling demos, in partner exhibits.
• While the outlook is optimistic, there are some limitations to uptake, including price of devices, corporate cultures that appreciate old-fashioned in-person training, and lack of manufacturers that are ready for digital transformation.
At PTC’s annual LiveWorks show, held from June 10th through 13th in Boston, the use of AR by businesses was a major theme. The technology is positioned by PTC as a way to bridge the physical and digital worlds. AR can digitally replicate an object such as a machine used in a manufacturing environment, or a complicated subsystem used in a complex field environment such as an oil rig. It essentially makes either a 3D model that can be viewed with a HoloLens or other smart glasses technology (easy to do with PTC’s CAD system, CREO) or a digital twin – essentially 3D in two dimensions – for viewing on a phone or tablet, which accurately represents all components of the machine, with all of its parts easy to discern. The model can have annotations added, including step-by-step training instructions, or ways to identify a part through colors or other effects. The AR model can provide simulations for operations such as seeing both the inside and outside of a machine or any component, or simulating operations such as refilling a fuel tank, or opening and closing a valve, etc. In 2015 PTC acquired Vuforia, which was a leading provider of AR software, picking up solutions to create content with 3D overlays, author and publish content quickly as needed, allow developers to create branded solutions, and mark-up views to highlight details or guide multi-step solutions.
How is AR Used?
The primary use cases for AR are for helping workers in factories assemble, use, and fix equipment; remotely helping a technician that is providing service on equipment in the field (which can save on expensive service calls or training classes), and allowing sales and marketing personnel to show customers products and their advanced features, often remotely while on a sales call. There are many examples of how these kinds of 3D models and simulations save money, increase revenues, and delight customers with better products and better sales experiences.
At LiveWorx, PTC customers that were part of a panel discussion were very enthusiastic about the technology, noting that AR was a key facilitator of digital transformation for their companies:
• Global Foundries, a large semi-conductor manufacturer, saw improved speed of manufacturing processes through greater efficiency, hands-free operations, and improved training with 3D immersive experiences that also minimized down-time of the asset.
• Howden, a provider of industrial equipment such as fans, compressors and heaters, used AR for remote assistance and training which saved on travel costs, as well as to empower services engineers in their factories, and for transformation of the customer experience that changed the way customers looked at their products.
• Fujitsu used AR for on-site customer support; devices that the company sells to retailers such as pin pads for check-out, were frequently requiring repair and AR allowed them to avoid service calls by having retail customers quickly repair the devices themselves.
• Agrekko, a provider of temporary power solutions (such as in Olympics stadiums, the SuperBowl and in third-world countries without permanent power), used AR to off-load lower-level training to AR simulations in order to save costs on classroom training that is now used primarily for more sophisticated training requirements.
What are the Limitations?
While AR provides compelling demos and has been established as a consumer gaming enabler for years through HoloLens and other smart glasses and helmets, it is still just starting to gain ground in the business environment.
Expensive Devices – The Microsoft HoloLens is not only allegedly hard to find due to low availability, but costs upward of $3,500 per device. While AR can be used on a tablet or smartphone the experience is not as compelling and is not hands-free, making it slightly awkward to use as a virtual training manual to help workers service equipment in the field. Google is however, repositioning Google Glass as an enterprise device and will be offering it for only $999.
Corporate Culture – Many companies still believe in one-on-one training, whether it is live or delivered via live streaming or a training video.
Not a Standalone Solution – Many companies are using AR in conjunction with 3D modeling for product design, IoT for connected products, and machine learning or other forms of AI for process efficiency and data analytics. Together, these technologies help a company through the phases of real digital transformation. But the majority of companies – let alone manufacturers – are just at the beginning of this journey. AR as a standalone technology may be a harder sell.
While the AR market may not yet have struck gold, PTC, Google, and Microsoft, as well as gaming device and content providers are enthusiastic about the opportunity. In addition, expounders of the concept of extended reality (XR) which combines both AR and virtual reality (VR) – “using VR to experience the environment and AR to change how it looks” – are finding new or expanded use cases both in the consumer and business environments.