More and more, mixed reality (MR) technologies such as VR and AR are being taken as less a commercial gimmick for consumers; instead, their immersive potential is being considered seriously by companies of all shapes and sizes as a potential solution for streamlining a number of business activities, improving knowledge sharing and making remote work more effective.

While a lot has been written about the sales and marketing potential of MR for businesses, there has been a lot of traction for this technology in manufacturing without necessarily generating the same amount of column inches. The reason for this is likely that all manufacturers are all likely to have their own unique ways of working – and therefore would require MR technology to be applied in a bespoke manner. Likewise, those who have already integrated VR or AR into their workflows will likely want to remain quiet about exactly how they are using it, in order to gain a competitive edge over their rivals.

That said, there are a number of clear benefits that Mixed Reality can bring to manufacturing processes across the spectrum of business – ranging from using augmented reality to improve worker safety on-site to expediting product design and production through the use of virtual reality as a design tool.

Mixed Reality in Industrial Design

Over the past couple of decades, prototyping has moved from being the successive creation of physical simulacrum to an increasing focus on digital design methods to improve and refine a design before the physical object is created. In this scenario, Mixed Reality works as an extension of the digital design process, replacing the physical prototype with a life-sized virtual model that can be generated in a fraction of the time (simply by uploading a 3D model into a VR environment) and can, theoretically, be edited in real-time by the design team while inspecting it.

As well as saving money by digitising more of the product design process, a virtual prototype means that initial troubleshooting can be achieved in much more quickly and amendments made almost instantly, making design teams more agile and adaptable when coming up with new products.

How MR could work in practice:

A mobile device manufacturer with a supply chain going around the world might use a bespoke VR platform to conduct face-to-face meetings remotely as well as to send virtual assembly walkthroughs from the industrial design team based in the US to both its in-house production team and its manufacturing factories in China.  

Training programmes in Mixed Reality

Many manufacturing and technology industries are facing a critical skills gap, as older employees retire and new technicians cannot be hired in sufficient numbers to prevent an inevitable loss in core knowledge. As such, education is at a premium for many manufacturing companies and creating effective, cost-efficient training programmes is a high priority.

While video-based learning, presentations and hands-on demo sessions are all widely used by companies around the world, these are often unengaging and don’t truly reflect how the skills being taught will need to be used in the employee’s work environment. VR training programmes, however, can help to teach key concepts in a realistic working scenario, giving the person being trained the information they need in the context in which is will be most useful. Furthermore, this can be done in a risk-free, secure environment so the trainee can experiment in a lifelike scenario without worrying about causing issues to a potentially mission-critical system.

Like other training and educational materials, an MR training programme needs to be developed in conjunction with trainers and experienced technicians but, once complete, can serve as a repository of accessible knowledge to ensure that important technical information and practices aren’t lost as younger employees replace their older colleagues.

How MR could work in practice:

A manufacturer of complicated systems for off-shore energy applications might need a team of highly trained engineers operating all over the globe. To facilitate this, the company creates a VR training programme that allows it to train these engineers in a realistic yet risk-free and engaging environment, wherever they might be based out of.

In-field technical assistance through MR

Inevitably, when complex machinery is involved there will inevitably be occasions when things go wrong. When this happens, it’s in the interests of both the manufacturer and the installer to fix the issue and get the system in question up and running again as soon as possible.  

For decades, the best way for an engineer on site to quickly find and resolve a technical error was one of three ways: looking through a maintenance to find the part or element in question, contacting the manufacturer via a phone helpline or using their own experience to work out what the issue might be. While these are all certainly effective means of solving problems, each approach can take a substantial amount of time to accomplish – always at a premium in our increasingly busy world.

Augmented reality devices can provide an intuitive way to identify and resolve common errors without needing to resort to an out-of-date PDF or having to explain the problem to another technician over a dodgy phone connection.

One way in which AR could be used might be in overlaying a virtual interface over a machine, providing an interactive, hands-free guide to how to resolve issues in a step-by-step manner. Remote support can be much more effective through an AR connection, as the camera function can allow an office-based expert can see exactly what the on-site technician is looking at, making it much simpler to troubleshoot problems. This efficient flow of information between engineers means workers can quickly be upskilled in the field, leading to less time needing to train installers and less pressure on a manufacturer’s technical support team.

How MR could work in practice

A manufacturer of modern roofing solutions with several installers based in Europe and the USA might wish to educate installers on its new roofing system. As the company hosts big installer events in Las Vegas and Amsterdam each year, it uses virtual reality simulations as an engaging way to show demonstrate how its innovative new solution can be installed.

With several different applications emerging, the development of virtual reality as a tool for manufacturers is going to be an interesting area to watch over the coming years. While many businesses have initially been reticent to embrace this disruptive technology, the commercial advantages in terms of efficiency, training and customer service that quick-thinking rivals will enjoy is likely to see a clamouring for new ways to use technology to improve businesses from top to bottom.