AR builds a better reality

Augmented reality is a relatively new technology, but the role it has played in meeting the UK’s Ventilator Challenge has proved its value.

One of the striking things about the response of business to the pandemic has been the speed with which companies have embraced technology in order to allow them to function in as near-normal a way as possible. For instance, it’s a fair bet to say that by now we are mostly all habitual users of video conferencing platforms and think nothing of sharing our desktops with colleagues.

This phenomenon has also been observable in the engineering sphere, with technologies and products that might previously have been thought niche or in their infancy being brought to bear to address the peculiar set of problems posed by the current circumstances and proving their worth.

One such technology has been Augmented Reality (AR) supplied by PTC, which has played a pivotal role in the widely-publicised VentilatorChallengeUK campaign to produce ventilators for the National Health Service’s response to Covid-19.

As covered in last month’s issue, the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium led by High Value Manufacturing Catapult CEO Dick Elsy and a host of the UK’s leading engineering businesses, including, but not exclusively, Ford Motor Company, GKN Aerospace, McLaren, Airbus, Meggitt and Siemens UK.

Experts have been working with existing ventilator manufacturers Smiths Group and Penlon to document crucial assembly processes involved in the development and build of Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator Systems (RMVS).

The consortium has used PTC’s Vuforia Expert Capture AR technology and Microsoft’s HoloLens to capture the crucial assembly steps and processes involved in building Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator Systems (RMVS). This will be uploaded and edited in PTC’s Vuforia Editor technology, which runs on Microsoft Azure, to create a virtual assembly guide and relayed, through wearable equipment or smart devices such as phone or tablet, to the factories of consortium partners that traditionally do not make ventilators.

Paul Haimes, Vice President of Field Engineering at PTC explains the background to PTC’s involvement. “We’ve got a very strong partnership with Microsoft both from the cloud perspective and also from the point of view of using the HoloLens to showcase what we do with our Vuforia technology,” he says. “We also have a close working relationship with many of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres, of which Dick Elsy is chair.

“So back in April I got a call from Microsoft on the Thursday and then another call from the AMRC [Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre] on the Friday and it was on a Friday evening quite late that the call to action came in. And I think the conference calls with Microsoft and with some of the other team members started about 10 O’clock on a Friday evening with a view that we would have somebody on site first thing Saturday morning.”

Clearly the speed with which events unfolded was one of the biggest challenges for the Consortium, as Haimes makes clear: “It really was a scramble to get people moving and get get the right individuals in the right places for the right times,” he says. “But I think as you’ve seen from many of the companies that have been involved, it really has galvanised a huge number of the UK’s leading manufacturing companies. And I don’t think anybody questioned what they were being asked to do. It was a case of ‘let’s get rolling, let’s get moving’ and we were on site together with Smiths Medical and some people from Ford and various other companies the very next day.”

From PTC’s point of view, at the heart of the project was the need to transfer the expertise, skills and intellectual property of the assembly lines at Smith and Penlon into a number of new facilities , something. This was achieved using AR.

Says Paul Haimes: “Well, we knew the challenge was on an augmented reality footing: i.e. what can AR do to accelerate the scalability challenge that was being faced by the engineering companies. The decision had already been taken. We will use an existing pre-approved design in the case of the Penland paraPAC and then the the ESO 2 ventilator and we would we would be using AR to capture what was being done in the Smiths and Penland factories and then process that information.”

This meant taking the best practice from the individuals on the shopfloor about how to assemble and most importantly, how to test these pieces of equipment. PTC’s role was to package that information up and then deliver it as an augmented reality experience to the new assembly technicians – people at Ford who had been assembling car components the previous day!

Says Haimes: : “Those people were now going to be assembling ventilators and it was going to be using our our AR experience. That was the tuition that they would receive.”

He continues: “The build takes over 24 hours and we captured all of the different stages through our Vuforia Expert Capture (VEC) software and a worker wearing Microsoft HoloLens glasses. From there, we upload to Azure Cloud and edit it is so that a manufacturing professional - with no prior experience of building a ventilator – can successfully be guided through the process. All they have to do is put on a pair of HoloLens glasses, or view a smart device like a tablet or phone, and follow the instructions. We have even put annotations over the footage to help with troubleshooting any potential issues.”

In addition to its value as a teaching tool, AR also fulfilled another key role in the project; namely, keeping people safe while working on it. Protecting all the workers involved in the project is of paramount importance to the consortium. This made using AR ideal for removing a lot of the dangers, by virtually placing a ventilator expert into a partner factory – thus reducing the risk of the virus spreading.

“We quickly became aware of was the need to minimise the number of people on site,” says Paul Haimes. “So that’s where I think augmented reality really added a huge amount of value as it meant we could capture what these experts were doing and provided that information really right in the field of view of these new operators. But we did it without having to put those experts in the factories with these new operators. And from a cross-contamination perspective, that was really important. And the consortium was very, very strict really on the fact that it was only ever going to be one PTC person that was going to be on site doing the work. There was a team of people backing the PTC offices who were supporting that individual, but it was going be that one person that was there in the factory.”

By its nature, this was a process with an extremely constrained timeframe. Just how quickly PTC was able to work to produce the AR experiences is eye-opening. Says Paul Haimes: “If we look at the Smith Medical ParaPac 300, which is the smaller of the two ventilators, the assembly process for that was 24 hours. We had to capture all of that, which was done over the course of, I think a day and a half or two days. We then had a few days of post processing, where we used our edit suite to splice together the video that documents that sort of speech content and so forth. And then it would be ready for publishing straight away. So you’re talking about something that was done in a matter of days that could ordinarily have taken weeks or weeks to do under normal working conditions.”

This project represented uncharted territory for PTC, since it meant working on a scale with AR that it had never tried before. “This ventilator challenge has been the biggest thing we’ve ever done with AR – it representes the largest number of AR experiences we’ve ever deployed inside PTC. So it goes beyond what we’ve done with any sort of regular customer regular manufacturer scheme.”

The success of PTC’s work has significant ramifications for the technology as a whole. According to Haimes: “This has gone way up into the thousands of experiences delivered. That for us is fantastic. It’s a great story. And then again, there have been no scalability challenges.. there is some proof of its resilience

“But I think what this has showed is that in order to respond at the pace at which the government required, it forced companies to look at these newer technologies. And I think, again, it’s showing that with the impetus and effort required to get this ventilator challenge mobilised these new technologies. And I won’t say it wouldn’t have been possible without them, but it certainly wouldn’t have been possible at the pace at which it was done. As our CEO, Jim Heppelmann says, the genie is out of the bottle and it probably won’t go back in.”

In the short term, the obvious value for AR in workplaces can be in making it unnecessary for as many individuals to have to visit the workplace. AR’s ability to connect people and allow them to work seamlessly together using shared augmented reality experiences has proved invaluable during this period, particularly as PTC has provided its Vuforia Chalk technology free of charge.

Another area where PTC sees AR as having a significant role to play is in its ability to aid in the transfer of legacy knowledge held by longstanding employees who are looking to retire. Says Haimes: “People are retiring off the shopfloor with 20 or 30 years of experience as to how this product gets built the right way; how this piece of machinery is set up to make these components. That sort of information that isn’t documented anywhere and that tribal knowledge built up over decades of experience and experiences is walking out the door.

“And companies need to tackle that. And AR gives them the ability to do that. But it’s not just about capturing that information. If you think about your potential millennial workforce that are going to be your new employees, they’re also expecting to be consuming data in a slightly different way to the paper-based way of communicating.”

PTC is keen to ensure that the perception of AR is not of a technology that is restricted to larger engineering companies. “We are very, very keen to promote what’s possible for the SME space,” says Haimes. “And again, we work closely with places like the AMRC up in Sheffield, where we’ve got shows and demonstrators showing what can be achieved for as little as £500 worth of investment from an industry for smart factory smart connected machine capability. What does that what does £500 get you? What does £5000 pounds get you? That type of information is available.”

The success of the Ventilator Challenge is already making a difference to adoption according to Paul Haimes. “We’ve seen massive uptake over the last month or so with companies starting to use it,” he says. “The Ventilator Consortium is certainly using it. But again, many, many other companies are taking advantage of that, that free technology. And again, it’s typically done using a tablet or smartphone, which everybody has. So it’s an easy technology to adopt. It’s all cloud based. So there’s nothing to install licence, straightforward. And I think that is driving adoption.”

Summing up, Haimes says: “In situations like this, companies are forced to look at new ways of working, forced to have to take on these practices and new technologies. Once they’ve done that, they can see that actually this has a measurable impact and measurable benefit. And we can work faster. We can work more consistently with people making fewer mistakes. If there’s some good that comes out of this, it will be the U.K. manufacturing will have accelerated its adoption of new technologies as a result of it.”