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How will augmented reality technology benefit manufacturing?

Manufacturing stands to gain tremendous benefits from augmented reality technology, and savvy leaders will learn about the possibilities now. Here's what to expect.

Augmented reality technology is on the verge of becoming an important advancement for industries -- particularly in manufacturing and service. But don't confuse AR with virtual reality.

Both augmented reality and virtual reality technologies display a simulated environment -- a digital world -- in an immersive fashion, usually through a headset display unit that resembles a swimmer's diving mask or large pair of eyeglasses with the display replacing the clear lenses. VR adds sensors that capture the viewer's sight orientation in the virtual world and physical movements that can drive the display, thus forming the connection between the physical and digital worlds. The user can move her hands and fingers to wield a tool that she sees in the display, for example, or turn her head to see what's behind her avatar (digital self).

Augmented reality uses much of the same kind of technology. The difference is that AR overlays the digital world onto the physical, as a kind of semitransparent curtain so the user sees both at once. Once synchronized, AR can overlay information, drawings and more on top of the real-world view. That's what makes AR particularly valuable in an industrial application. AR can also be implemented on a mobile device like a tablet with the same capabilities, except it would not be hands-free.

This overlay approach can provide foolproof, animated graphical instructions for performing a physical task. The user dons the headset or synchronizes the tablet viewer, accesses the work order or task list, then simply looks through the graphic display at the work-piece or equipment. The viewer lays the graphical instructions over the real object and demonstrates the needed actions. This greatly overcomes training requirements, largely eliminates language issues, and ensures greater efficiency and quality of the work.

Augmented reality technology can be applied to work instructions, equipment repair and maintenance, user instruction manuals (IKEA should be looking into this), and many other uses. By enabling untrained or minimally trained users to perform their own installation and repairs in the field, AR can significantly change field service requirements, for considerable savings for both the producer and the user.

AR has the potential to reduce training requirements, speed up new product or process introduction; improve quality in factory operations; enhance customer benefit by providing better documentation and use instructions; and act as a sales tool to better demonstrate product operation and features. AR technology is just beginning to make inroads in these areas, but expect a virtual explosion in use as developers are creating ecosystems with platforms, protocols, communication links and authoring tools to speed the development of applications.

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