Augmented Reality flexes its muscles

​Industry 4.0 was always going to be a slow burn rather than a technological wave that swept through manufacturing, digitising everything in its path. Evolution, not revolution, as they say. In light of this, it’s no surprise that augmented reality (AR) has taken a while to break beyond the hype of its initial promise. But as the technology matures, we’re seeing more industry applications, as well as more people willing to take a gamble, convinced that the early promise is ready to come good.

With digitisation and cloud computing now pervasive across many areas of industry, AR can now finally flex its muscles, putting information in front of people’s eyes on the factory floor, feeding live data streams from individual machines, providing remote assistance with maintenance, and collecting expertise from skilled workers that may otherwise be lost to the ether. US software company PTC has been banging the AR drum for several years now, and a new pathfinder project with the UK’s Materials Processing Institute (MPI) is hoping to demonstrate just how far the technology has come.

The MPI’s Normanton Plant in Teesside is an R&D testbed for the latest steelmaking and alloy technology, including various melting and casting equipment. Using Microsoft’s Hololens AR glasses as well as RealWear’s headset computers, workers at the site will be equipped with AR on the plant floor. This AR will be powered by PTC’s Vuforia Studio technology, underpinned with data from ThingWorx, PTC’s industrial internet of things (IIOT) platform.

“We are taking responsibility for exploring IIoT platforms and AR and working out how we can get the most out of them in a live steel plant, learning from testing and trials to identify best use cases,” said the MPI’s Chris Oswin, group manager of Digital Technologies.

“This means we absorb a lot of the time and remove the initial expenditure that could act as a barrier to entry for companies in our industry, hopefully encouraging digital adoption as we will have proved it works and how it can be applied to businesses.”

The Normanton Plant has been integrated with ThingWorx since late 2020, capturing and analysing data in real time. Imaging technologies are combined with machine learning to enhance process characterisation and develop digital twins of plant operations. Ultimately, the technology provides staff with the information they need to make tweaks in the steelmaking process that could potentially lead to millions of pounds in operational savings per year. Adding the augmented reality functionality is simply the latest piece of the puzzle, an additional layer of technology that enables workers to access the information hands-free on the plant floor.

The MPI project is part of a wider £22m steel and metals sector R&D programme known as PRISM, which is being delivered by the MPI with funding provided through Innovate UK. Announced as part of the March 2020 budget, PRISM ‘s remit includes the circular economy and decarbonisation, alongside the digitalisation that the new AR pilot falls under.

“PRISM is guided by a team of industry leaders on our Industrial Advisory Board,” Oswin explained, “including the Aluminium Federation, British Manufacturing Plant Constructors’ Association, British Steel, Celsa Steel, Liberty Steel, Outokumpu Stainless Steel, Sheffield Forgemasters, Swansea University, Tata Steel and the UK Metals Council.”

The list is a veritable who’s who of steel and metal players in the UK and demonstrates that digitisation – including AR - is being taken seriously, with the potential to have a real impact on a heavy industry often seen as resistant to change. While many commercial steel producers may not be enthused at the prospect of integrating a nascent technology into their plant operations just yet, the MPI provides the ideal platform to prove AR’s utility and value.

“This project with the Materials Processing Institute gives an entire sector the opportunity to explore how AR can be applied and developed in a real live steel plant without the potential disruption and cost of trying it in their own facilities,” said David Grammer, general manager for UK and Ireland at PTC.

“Businesses will be involved in the roll-out and informing some of the test cases and our team will be on hand to support experts at the institute to get the most out of our technology and software. The end goal is that we will have proven business cases on how steel and metals companies can optimise processes using augmented reality and live data, not to mention protecting vital skills for the steel workers of the future.”

This last part that Grammar mentions is a somewhat niche application of AR, but one which could have a big impact on traditional industries like steelmaking, where skills of yesteryear are no longer being passed down in the same way as before. Using PTC’s Vuforia Expert Capture, technicians can film their work as they go about their day, providing step-by-step guides for various operations around the plant. This information can then be stored and used to train up new recruits, ensuring that core skills in a key strategic industry are not lost forever.

“If we don’t act soon, we stand to lose so much knowledge from the industry and AR gives us a cost effective and easy way to retain skills and experience in a virtual library for generations to come,” said Oswin.

“Working closely with PTC’s experts, we can tailor how we capture information, footage and skills in what is a very demanding and intense environment. We believe we’ve got the initial framework to start the roll-out and will continue to adapt the processes as we understand more about how digital technologies can play a role.”

Once collected, the information can be accessed by new starters either via a computer or smartphone, or via the same Hololens and RealWear AR hardware used to capture it in the first place.

“The same technology could also be used to solve problems quickly,” said Grammar.

“For instance, when you are on the casting line, it can be very difficult to isolate and rectify an issue quickly enough to make a difference. Once a solution is found, it can be stored and using AR deployed quickly.”