Drives & Controls April 2024

44 n VIRTUAL REALITY April 2024 The rise of AR and VR in industrial automation Over the past couple of decades, we have seen an exponential rise in technological advances for industrial automation. The arrival of Industry 4.0 has given rise to increased machine-to-machine communications, machine learning, real-time data analysis, predictive maintenance, and more. We have seen the introduction of digital twin technology and the awesome power it can wield in plant e ciency. Another exciting innovation is the incorporation of AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality). These aren’t just cool gaming experiences anymore. We see them being used throughout the industrial automation realm. From training to maintenance, these powerful tools are being deployed to provide an e cient, e‚ective, hands-on approach to maintaining equipment and training employees. Since the pandemic, manufacturing employers worldwide have faced an unprecedented labour shortage. Quality, skilled workers are becoming harder and harder to ‡nd. This has led to unprecedented growth in implementing automated techniques to meet production demands. In many ways, automation has become the key to manufacturers being successful in this climate. Coupled with environmental concerns, quality requirements and consumer demand, manufacturers must walk a thin line to stay pro‡table. While all this is instrumental to progress, it exacerbates the labour shortage in some ways. As some jobs become obsolete, the need for new skilled labour increases. Being able to interact with robots, troubleshoot cabinets, and perform maintenance on production lines all become valuable skills. There will always be a need for the human component in any manufacturing process; however, the expectation of ‡nding workers with the necessary skillsets to do the above and more is no longer sensible. So, how can a manufacturer close the gap in this new climate? The answer may very well be the adoption of AR and VR. Recently, I attended a trade show where a manufacturer was using augmented reality to help a worker troubleshoot and repair a control cabinet. The demonstration showed a worker armed with a pair of smart glasses who opened, diagnosed, and repaired the cabinet. The glasses, connected to a server, presented a series of questions to help diagnose issues, and showed a step-by-step process for repairing the panel. It walked the worker through the entire process. The program also demonstrated the highest safety concerns for both the worker and the system to avoid damage. It showed the worker how to diagnose the problem safely, deenergize the components, perform lockouttagout, remove the bad component(s), install new components, and restart the system. While this is still rather new technology, the implications of it being employed in real-world situations are immense. Employers are also starting to introduce AR and VR into training applications. Using these tools and platforms, employees are given access to valuable, powerful and scalable training tools that can meet company training goals and be repeated across an entire organisation, regardless of where it is in the world. Employees can interact with virtual equipment and processes they will see in the ‡eld, with a greater understanding of safe and e cient operation in their jobs. From new workers to experienced employees, manufacturers can ensure proper training guidelines are met accurately. The value of augmented reality and virtual reality in industrial automation is incalculable when considering the real-world applications in which they can be employed. Improvements to training programs can lead to fewer safety mishaps, more e‚ective maintenance, more e cient production, better inventory management, improved quality assurance, and more. Manufacturers using these technologies can optimise the performance of their workforces, and increase the life expectancies of their equipment. n Augmented and virtual reality technology are being used increasingly in factory settings. Eric J. Halvorson, marketing technology manager for automation and control at the automation and electronic components distributor, DigiKey, examines some of the implications. Manufacturers are using AR and VR technologies to enhance training, maintenance, quality assurance and inventory management, among other applications.