• By Percy Stocker
  • Executive Corner

Every Boeing 747-8 Freighter contains at least 130 miles of wiring. There are wires overhead, under the floor, through the walls, around the cockpit, and down into the wheel wells. Depending on the customer’s needs, Boeing’s cargo planes are also available in multiple configurations, each with its own distinctive wiring scheme. Getting all those planes wired correctly is critical, and for years the plant’s assembly technicians used heavy printed manuals—their so-called “phone books”—and intricate laptop diagrams to guide them in their work. It was a tedious job.

Several years ago, the company found a better way. It equipped its technicians with Google smart glasses that use augmented reality (AR) software to superimpose wiring diagrams and related information from a remote computer onto real-time images of the plane’s wiring harnesses. And they do it without requiring the workers either to break visual contact or use their hands. The instructions they need are projected directly onto their field of view, and by using voice commands, they can change the display as required.

Boeing is not alone in using AR to find novel ways of improving quality and saving costs. A growing list of leading manufacturers are finding that AR can be applied to a variety of industrial issues.

Thyssenkrupp, for example, uses Microsoft HoloLens, a system that overlays high-definition holograms onto real-world images, to custom design and help customers visualize home stair lift systems. Data from those images is then transferred to the company’s manufacturing facility, dramatically shortening delivery times.

Jaguar Land Rover designed an AR system that uses iPad cameras to train new employees how to recognize the location of wiring and electronic devices obscured behind the vehicle’s dashboard. It uses an app that shows diagrams of concealed wire connections, simply by pointing to the dashboard. The system teaches trainees whatever they need to learn without the time or cost involved in disassembling an actual vehicle.

Caterpillar is using an AR app to help its technicians do maintenance. It gives them step-by-step instructions of how to perform various service and maintenance checks, and it can connect them with experts all over the world. It also helps newly hired mechanics learn tractor maintenance much more quickly. Airbus is using AR in its inspection work, which has enabled it to speed up the assembly process by 40 percent. And Porsche is working on developing a system that uses AR for quality control.

Augmented reality is still a nascent technology, and its capabilities are constantly being expanded. But forward-looking companies are already finding valuable ways to apply the power of low-cost, wearable, voice-activated technology to augment the strengths of their workers, improve plant productivity, increase safety, enhance quality, cut costs, and train personnel more effectively. In fact, by 2025 it is estimated that approximately 14 million workers will be using various types of headsets in their workplaces, blending the power of data with real-world scenarios.

Among its emerging uses are inventory management, prototyping, security, and real-time analysis. But for manufacturing organizations and on the plant floor, it is the company’s industrial engineers, skilled operators, technicians, and machinists whose training and work stand to benefit most immediately from this transformational technology.

This article appeared on Automation.com in August 2021.

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About The Authors

Percy Stocker is SVP AR Americas for TeamViewer, a global mobile technology company. He has 15 years of consulting, sales, and operations experience and a master’s degree in computer science from Technical University of Munich and the National University of Singapore.