How Augmented Reality can assist Scotland’s circular economy aspirations

When it comes to manufacturing, complex production assembly, quality assurance and prototyping, new technology, particularly Augmented Reality (AR), is changing everything. Not only is AR helping to speed up the entire prototyping process, it’s also helping manufacturers to minimise (and in some instances completely avoid) the use of scarce and increasingly costly raw materials. Not only is that amazing news in terms of sustainability and the environment, it’s also great news for businesses in terms of the benefits of using AR for designing and developing prototypes. Using an ‘Augmented Prototyping’ approach to manufacturing, businesses in Scotland can harness the power of AR to make prototyping faster, not just in terms of decision making but in terms of the entire manufacturing process. Augmented Reality prototyping can provide distinct commercial and competitive advantages by enabling manufacturers to develop multiple iterations of a prototype without using any raw materials. This helps to accelerate decision making and enable manufacturers to deploy highly innovative new products to market in the shortest possible timescale. We recently covered how to develop a prototype for Microsoft Hololens, 10 Augmented Reality facts your business needs to know and what Apple ARKit means for brands and businesses. Today we’re exploring how Augmented Reality can assist Scotland’s circular economy aspirations.

What is Augmented Reality?
For the uninitiated, Augmented Reality is the real-time integration of digital information and 3D models within the real-world. It differs from Virtual Reality (VR) in that AR provides a partially immersive experience through a HUD (heads up display) or mobile device (smartphone or tablet). Virtual Reality provides a fully immersive experience via a HUD and represents a completely different technological platform whereas AR uses the real world environment and overlays digital information on top. The term ‘Augmented Reality’ was first coined by a Boeing researcher called Thomas Caudell in 1990 to describe how HUD’s worked. In the context of Boeing, HUD’s were used by electricians during the assembly process of highly complex wiring harnesses. Fast forward to today and Augmented Reality is becoming a mainstream concern for businesses across multiple industry sectors, particularly manufacturing.

What is the circular economy?
The circular economy involves the convergence of businesses, industries and consumers to reduce inefficiencies in manufacturing and keeping materials in use for longer. If you’re a business owner involved in the manufacturing sector, it might be that Augmented Reality has the potential to solve a myriad of challenges. Imagine a scenario whereby manufacturing inefficiencies could be almost completely eliminated from your existing processes, or a scenario whereby an existing physical product could actually be replaced with a service. This is what Scotland’s circular economy is all about. According to the Zero Waste Scotland website, the circular economy initiative’s ultimate goal is to keep physical products and materials in circulation in a ‘high value state’ for as long as possible in order to maximise the use of precious resources. In order to achieve this goal, new products and manufacturing processes need to be designed and developed in an intelligent manner that considers their entire lifecycle, from ideation and inception, to production and beyond.

For manufacturing businesses in Scotland there are immense challenges and opportunities to consider. With the rising cost of raw materials, shifting regulations, increased global competition and growing concerns around sustainability related issues, manufacturers are increasingly seeking ways to provide a unique selling proposition. In 2017, manufacturers are now trying to discover new and sustainable means of optimising existing processes for designing and developing new products. For manufacturing companies looking to overcome these challenges and exploit the vast commercial potential of a global marketplace, Augmented Reality provides some compelling use cases in terms of how these problems can be solved.

There are a bunch of things we can do to fulfil the aspirations of Scotland’s circular economy which bring a wide variety of benefits to businesses. Here are some of the areas where Augmented Reality can have a positive impact on the manufacturing process in terms of fulfilling these aspirations:

Design & Prototyping
It’s estimated that approximately 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined by its initial design. Zero Waste Scotland is now working in collaboration with the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce with the primary aim of injecting ‘circular economy thinking’ at product design level within the private sector. When new products are being designed, decisions need to be made in terms of which materials will be used, the quantity of each material and in each instance the sustainability of these choices needs to be examined. This means thinking about how easily design materials can be recycled or repaired. The core principle of the circular economy is to ensure that sustainability is engineered into design processes at the earliest opportunity when new products are being developed. This is where Augmented Reality can have a tangible impact on sustainable design and reducing carbon output.

Augmented Reality (AR) can be utilised to enable designers to visualise 3D models in full, on any device, at any time. By visualising design prototypes in 3D using Augmented Reality, the manufacturing process can be streamlined to produce highly sustainable outcomes. Imagine a scenario whereby the power of AR can be harnessed to streamline and synergise the design and production stages of the manufacturing process. Not only that, but AR can be used to minimise the consumption of precious (and increasingly costly) raw materials during the prototyping phase. In some instances, 3D AR prototyping can be used to completely transform the prototyping process for physical products and eliminate the need for raw materials all together.  3D AR prototypes can be developed for mobile devices using Vuforia (this means that applications can be used with existing iOS and Android smartphones and tablets) or using a HUD (heads up display) such as Microsoft Hololens. Not only does AR potentially eliminate the need for using raw materials during the prototyping phase of manufacturing, it also enables designers to engage with prototypes in an entirely new way. Prototypes can be viewed to scale and enlarged using a single gesture. Prototype components can be viewed, scaled, rotated and enlarged on an individual basis. This not only eliminates the use of raw materials from the production process, it also enables key manufacturing stakeholders to make decisions faster by providing an entirely new and immersive way to interact with prototypes. Using AR it’s also possible to integrate 3D prototypes directly into the end-users real-world environment before a single component has been produced.

Servicing and Repair
The lifecycle of physical products can be optimised and extended through maintenance and repair practices, by enabling them to stay in use for the maximum possible length of time. This encompasses manufacturers using technologies such as AR to retain ownership of physical materials, products and components by implementing repair and maintenance services. Augmented Reality can be easily used to enhance the maintenance of manufacturing equipment and tools. Mitsubishi Electric is an example of one company that is already leveraging the capabilities of AR to optimise its servicing and repair process. Their technology works by using a 3D model that enables users to confirm the order of inspection on an AR display and enter inspection results using voice controlled commands. The company’s belief is that AR’s most useful application is within maintenance in the context of a manufacturing environment. At present Mitsubishi field workers use a handheld, paper manual to confirm various maintenance targets. The process itself can be extremely time consuming and tiring for workers because the maintenance target and manual should be confirmed together. This type of thinking and approach to adopting new technologies is absolutely vital in terms of helping to fulfil Scotland’s aspirations for a circular economy.

In time, Mitsubishi will roll-out their AR initiative across a variety of maintenance and repair based use cases and scenarios, with many commercial applications that span beyond the realms of manufacturing to include the development of electrical systems for buildings and for conducting inspections of water treatment plants. The ability to leverage AR for viewing the status of a machine is extremely compelling, but AR possesses use case examples that stretch far beyond the realms of error detection.

Another fantastic example of the use of AR within servicing and repair is the elevator manufacturer Thyssenkrupp. The company announced recently that all of it’s field based technicians would start using Microsoft Hololens for service operations. Using the MS Hololens, engineers can visualise and identify problems with elevators before arriving on-site. This minimises the need for journeys to and from site, thus reducing fuel consumption and also enables the engineers to have remote, hands-free access to expert technical information when on-site via Skype. This technology now enables 24,000 Thyssenkrupp engineers to do their jobs faster and with increased levels of efficiency. It’s estimated that the Hololens initiative has increased the efficiency of its field workers and engineers by over 400%. It’s this type of innovation and forward thinking mentality that needs to be adopted within Scotland’s manufacturing base in order to fulfill the goals of the circular economy.

Complex Manufacturing & Assembly
Manufacturing is a highly complex process that involves amalgamating hundreds (sometimes thousands) of discrete components in a precise order of sequence. In addition, the overall goal is to assemble these components into a finished product in the shortest possible timescale. This process is consistent across multiple industry sectors, from the manufacturing of smartphones and jet engines to medical equipment, construction materials and much more. What is also consistent across these industry sectors and manufacturing processes is the need for assembly instructions and guidance. Historically these instructions have been provided in the form of a printed pdf document which can be notoriously difficult to navigate for employees. In addition, the documents are static, very difficult to update and as such can often contain information that’s out of date and no longer contextually accurate. For manufacturing companies and AR developers this challenge presents an enormous opportunity.

Augmented Reality technologies can now be leveraged to ensure that the correct instructions are visible at all times and in a way that is completely hands-free through use of a HUD. Engineers can also interact with the technology using voice activated search to ask specific questions and record notes. For manufacturing companies in Scotland, it’s time to start thinking about how AR can be used to break down instructions that are associated with existing assembly line processes and procedures. Technical drawings can also be deconstructed and combined with video footage from the last engineer who fulfilled the procedure and then all of this information can be combined together via an AR enabled HUD. This means that complex tasks can be carried out using AR in a completely hands free way without the use of paper based documents. This minimises the need to halt tasks to access documents thus accelerating the assembly line process.

Conclusion
Augmented Reality technology is changing the face of the manufacturing industry, not just in Scotland but throughout the rest of the world. From prototyping and complex assembly, to quality assurance and servicing, AR based technologies have the potential to drive a range of highly compelling commercial and environmental outcomes. AR can be used to speed up the design and prototyping process. But more importantly, the technology can be deployed to deliver against key sustainability goals associated with the aspirations of the circular economy. If you’re a manufacturing business based in Scotland and you’re looking for innovative new ways to streamline your production process in order to create compelling environmental and commercial outcomes, we’d love to hear from you. Contact Mozenix today to kick-start the conversation.