Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) have transitioned over the past decade from a gaming-only technology[1] to a toolset that can be used to supplement and enrich the jobs of the frontline workers. To appreciate the impact that AR and VR have on industry, here are some facts on estimated use and growth:

  • Investment Companies state very recently that the global AR and VR market will grow from $3 billion in 2020 to $28 billion by 2025, as technology expands and related cost declines (following Wright’s law[2]).
  • By 2030, 23 Million jobs will be using AR and VR in one way or another for training, meetings and customer service. (PwC 2019)
  • 43% of manufacturing companies say VR will become mainstream in their organization within the next three years. An additional 38% believe it will be mainstream in three to five years. (Capgemini)
  • AR development statistics for 2020 reveal that AR companies are working on industrial applications (65%) rather than consumer software. (Forbes)

Augmented and Virtual Reality will play a vital role in the future of manufacturing operations, and the speed of its adoption will be directly proportional to the complexity of the products and processes where it will be used.

Some of the challenges that are being solved through these technologies are mostly related with knowledge transference to users:

  • Reducing paper documentation management
  • Fostering implementation of innovation (Product, process, marketing and organizational innovation)
  • And, due to a less predisposition to retain knowledge, creating more just-in-time and immersive work instructions

The promise of Industry 4.0 in AR and VR

The whole premise (and promise!) of Industry 4.0 is that it combines new with existing technologies so that operations become extremely connected, predictive, resilient and efficient. The resultant operational data, which may have been ignored or lost, is now captured through hyper-connected IT applications, enriched by these applications using AI and Big Data analytics and then delivered to users across the value chain.

Industry 4.0 leverages both the Internet of Things-based devices and cloud-based computing, using AR and/or VR for an enriched and immersive experience, enabling enterprises to react faster. Armed with high quality information, the resulting actions help to achieve Industry 4.0 benefits associated with speed, accuracy, clarity and in some cases, innovation.

But what do Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality really mean to manufacturing? What exactly is the difference between the two? Are they interchangeable? Are they a substitute for each other? And what overall role do they play in bringing Industry 4.0 to today’s modern plants?

AR or Augmented Reality as the name suggests, does not attempt to replace the user’s reality completely—rather, it augments or adds to it layer of contextual information in various forms including images, videos, sounds, graphs, documents or a combination of these, to enhance the user’s reality. This augmentation of reality may help users in multiple ways, enabling them to better interact with their present environment and immediately make more informed decisions and actions. AR, just like VR, has many benefits to offer, especially in modern day manufacturing plants which are either starting their automation journey or are already semi-automated, but want to actively and aggressively pursue Industry 4.0.

Conversely, VR or Virtual Reality can best be understood as a technology which allows the user to experience an alternate reality, either in 2-D or 3-D depending on the mode of deployment. Basically, VR substitutes reality by immersing the user in an alternate reality, which may mimic the reality, or the substitution can be something completely different from the user’s reality. VR is a technology which helps create a virtual alternate world where the user can interact with the elements present and feel immersed in said world through sensory tools which affect vision, sound, smell and haptic senses. In manufacturing, VR has immense potential to enrich and supplement the frontline workforce’s effectivity and accuracy for decision making and productivity. 

AR and VR are very complementary technologies, and both have a role in Industry 4.0. Both can contribute significantly in a myriad of areas, ranging from setting up new plants, commissioning new lines, to training personnel and from modelling the existing shop floor to implementing predictive maintenance.

Industry 4.0 perspective

Let us now examine which specific areas AR and VR can contribute to from an Industry 4.0 perspective.

Augmented Reality is best known through the extremely popular and viral game Pokémon Go. However, industrial implementations of AR have existed for a while and are gaining momentum, some estimates put AR ahead of VR in importance and adoption from an Industry 4.0 perspective and perhaps there is some sense to that.

AR as a technology is easy to incorporate even with basic IIoT connectivity and can be deployed through standard smartphones and tablets. This emphasizes the importance of choose solutions Hardware-agnostic and, with a low investment, start to explore this technology in our operations.

There are also advanced devices like headsets and goggles which may provide the user a slightly more immersive AR experience. But at its core AR attempts to improve the user’s existing conditions by adding contextual information which may help them do their jobs better—that’s a huge part of the appeal that AR has for operations. Combine with the fact that most operations will not be fully automated any time soon, and AR starts sounding more and more appealing.

VR is also autonomous, which means that in the highest and most advanced operation, plants would be rendered in the exact same manner virtually as they do physically– a real digital twin, where personnel monitor the activities happening on the real shop-floor via the digital twin and interact with elements in the twin to enable and create actions on the actual physical plant. The technology which enables the digital twin is VR, and offers plants which are not fully automated (and far from being autonomous) with massive potential.

VR creates a digital model of the existing plant and helps engineers and operations experts optimize the workflow, change/improve the plant set-up and create plant layouts which are more efficient for existing and new plants. Through VR, all elements of a plant may be created virtually, then MES would feed this virtual plant data from the actual shop floor outcomes, enabling experts to review flows, inventory movements, equipment outputs, process conditions and personnel performance on their VR devices, understand what needs to change and then make the change on the real shop floor.

Lessons learned from issues in existing plants through VR can help model better plants for future or other locations and extend to enhanced product designs. Production SOP-related changes may be made by analyzing data from the digital twin and all this can happen in real-time.

VR has more to offer than creating an immersive virtual twin experience for process owners. Even in its simplest implementations, VR can help train personnel through simulations which can drastically reduce loss of time and material[3]. Upgrading the skill level for personnel may be instrumental for personal development or job retention. Irrespective of the activity, whether it is in maintenance or in operations, VR-based training can help personnel gain actual experience without putting them or expensive equipment/material in harm’s way. Depending on the operation and readiness of the IT and IoT infrastructure, VR implementations in organizations may vary from simple 2-D simulations to highly engaging and immersive 3-D renderings of the actual process and equipment. 

AR and VR Use Cases in Manufacturing

There are many areas in which AR and VR have proved and will prove beneficial for adopters in manufacturing, let’s highlight a few of these use cases.

Operator Information

AR and VR help operators view, and be guided interactively using detailed product and process steps, work instructions, SOP schematics, materials and tool selection to complete tasks efficiently and error-free.

 Product Information

By pointing an AR device at any product on the shop floor, you can instantly view complete traceability records such as: quantity, lot, batch or device history records, product specifications, order details, customer details, quality metrics etc.

Equipment Information

Used for maintenance and troubleshooting, by pointing the AR device at any shop floor equipment, you can view important KPIs, including in-process lots, OEE performance, MTTR and MTBF, Yield, Cycle time, maintenance schedules, operation and repair instructions, and much more.

VR and Digital Twins

A Digital Twin is a virtual representation of a physical asset—be it a piece of equipment or an entire plant. A digital twin mimics the behavior and performance of its twin, allowing you to visualize, monitor and maintain the physical asset in real-time. Digital twins allow drill down representations from higher levels (of facilities or areas) to individual equipment levels, including zooming with graphical animation. Detail-level monitoring can show a single piece of equipment, with its available elements, allowing views into information like historical data and materials tracking. 

Key points to consider when choosing an AR & VR solution

In all cases, since AR and VR add information from the process and about the process, each and every operator with an AR/VR-enabled device can use these technologies to perform their tasks better, with instant context as to the performance, status and state of each device, station or equipment. AR can be used to directly relay recipes, instructions (leveraging images/text/sound/video), changes and alerts.

This information flow requires the AR&VR solution to be integrated with an application that controls all these processes and that is permanently updated. Only then will you be able to provide just-in-time information to operators. Therefore, the first key point is that AR / VR technology is integrated (or eventually incorporated) with these operational applications.

To make the adoption of this technology simpler, it is important that the effort of setup and maintenance can be low. With this I intend to explain what I believe to be two more key points: the ease of creating and maintaining AR&VR content and also the role that mobile devices will have in the first experiences and exploration of this technology in an operational environment.

AR and VR both are extremely promising technologies. Already adopted into our everyday lives, they now play a critical role in unleashing Industry 4.0 performance enhancements.

Naturally, MES’s positioning in operations makes it a partner par excellence for the adoption of these AR&VR technologies and more use-cases will emerge, namely in the areas of Material Handling, namely in Support the full Material Logistics lifecycle, as well as in support of the management of Quality, for example management of non-conforming lots, sampling among other cases.

Installing a Modern MES not only creates the important integration infrastructure but allows you to fully leverage the benefits that foundational Industry 4.0 technologies like AR and VR bring to your operations.


[1] Tech companies like Snapchat, Facebook among others, have invested in Augmented Reality, encouraging widespread use of AR tools in mobile devices.

[2] Wright’s Law aims to provide a reliable framework for forecasting cost declines as a function of cumulative production. Specifically, it states that for every cumulative doubling of units produced, costs will fall by a constant percentage.

[3]ASM Digital Learning Platform, launched during March 2020, is SMT-knowledge transference platform. This initiative is proven to be a success and is based in 3D animations as well virtual reality to create realistic learning situations how interact with highly complex equipment for electronics manufacturing.