This text was originally published in the SMART Industry – The IoT Business Magazine

Augmented-Reality (AR) is very much part of the digital revolution in manufacturing. By simply donning a hands-free headset, workers can add a virtual layer of contextual information on top of what they see before them along with detailed information about a machine or process. Today, AR is mainly used in maintenance but, once you realize that the application of AR is only limited by the imagination, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Augmented-Reality (AR) is part of what is becoming known as the manufacturing execution system (MES), a whole – new world of opportunities for increased plant efficiency and performance. With complete access to all the real-time data from the MES, AR can go much deeper into the shop floor. By providing an interactive window into all data contained within a modern MES, operators, workers, technicians, process engineers, and managers can see exactly what is happening, or what needs to be done, in real time and be intuitively guided through operations. They can access any information from the MES anytime and anywhere using smartphones, tablets or, for the ultimate in hands-free efficiency, AR glasses.

Big ScoopThe SMT industry is not different from the rest of the manufacturing world!

A modern MES designed for future ready manufacturing, based on the Industry 4.0 (I4.0) model, can provide real-time, contextualized data from every part of the connected supply chain. Data about equipment, products, processes, and schedules can not only be retrieved but also analyzed to reveal key performance indicators (KPIs), such as overall equipment efficiency (OEE), in-process lots, yield, cycle time, mean time to repair (MTTR), and mean time between failures (MTBF). Product specifications, order details, customer details, quality metrics, and batch records can all be accessed instantly to help keep operations running smoothly and meet delivery schedules.

The evolution of the Internet of Things and I4.0 manufacturing concepts have opened new possibilities in how real-time data can be used to control and optimize production better. Add AR into the mix and the workforce is instantly armed with every piece of information it needs. AR vastly improves worker guidance and productivity, helping to enhance quality and yield. It works to prevent errors in setup and maintenance processes as well as adding to efficiency. Furthermore, the real-time and drill down information enhance process optimization.

By bringing the shop floor to life with the wealth of information within the MES, operators can perform even the most complex tasks with confidence and efficiency. Detailed process steps, work instructions, schematics, materials, and tool selection can all be clearly displayed to ensure that tasks are completed correctly, the first time, every time – eliminating costly errors and documentation mistakes that hurt product quality. New workers can enjoy this immersive experience with clear guidance to help them learn tasks more quickly or even to guide them to where they need to be.

Immediate Action

Augmented-Reality is completely interactive. Operators can clearly see where any problem areas are, or might occur, and take immediate action from their current location. Indeed, the whole concept of AR with mobile interfaces reduces wasted movement and further enhances operator efficiency.
To expand the benefit and reach of AR requires a modern, I4.0-ready MES, or “augmented MES”. As the speed and complexity of production has increased over the years, a modern MES needs to adapt to handle these needs. The system must offer a fully integrated digital twin of the shop floor to make AR a reality – in many ways, the original MES solutions were the first form of digital twin. With IoT and smart technology, however, they must now take data from any smart device on the shop floor or even from a network of global facilities. Context must then be added to this data to present it back in a clear and intuitive form that meets the needs of an individual carrying out a particular operation.

Augmented-Reality: A Virtual View

Putting operational data into context and making it available across enterprise and automation systems is what MES does best. By using RFID tags and scanners, the execution system can also be fully aware of where materials, products, tools, and even employees are at any point in time. With augmented MES, these locations can be shown in the virtual view of the plant. Add to this the capability of realistic 3D modelling and location based services that use dynamic positioning, rather than just static, and the whole plant comes to life in the virtual model.  

This gives the execution system complete visibility of all shop-floor activity. Now, add in AR technology via headset, tablet, or smartphone and native AR within the execution system takes plant monitoring, control, guidance, and optimization to whole new levels. Anything that is accessible via the MES can be incorporated into the AR display. By simply pointing a mobile device’s camera at products or equipment that bear an identifier, such as a barcode or quick response (QR) matrix, data is instantly correlated with the AR identifier and superimposed on the screen. This means the operator is instantly presented with information relevant to their task or role and does not have to switch between screens. The contextual detail enhances accuracy and efficiency of operations, and the display is completely configurable and can include tools, such as calendars, charts, or widgets, making the display as pertinent as possible for the person, task, or situation.  

Manufacturing and Digital Twin
New Model Factory:Combining new Industry 4.0 technologies such as digital twins and augmented reality (AR) with up-to-date versions of proven software systems, particularly manufacturing execution systems (MES), creates ways to ensure these digital and virtual systems reflect and fully support a company’s physical and real operations.

With digital twin I4.0 concepts and modern MES technology, Augmented-Reality can now become ubiquitous, but that does not mean that every application will make good business sense – but it does mean that information can flow freely and readily to workers when and where they need it. The use of this technology will also accelerate moves to I4.0 production models and the huge gains in efficiency and quality this offers.
As for the future, our acceptance of mobile technology combined with the increased efficiency Augmented-Reality offers to manufacturing operations may well mean that AR becomes the only way to interact with shop-floor systems. Add in speech recognition and bots and we may find standard, fixed, user interfaces for equipment may well cease to exist altogether.