Augmented reality in factory
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How augmented reality is putting people in the picture

Image credit: Pop Nukoonrat/Dreamstime

Adoption of AR has risen sharply during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now employers need to look at how it can help to recruit and engage employees as well as solving technical challenges.

Where are all the workers? That’s the question that many manufacturing leaders are asking right now, as labour shortages and skill deficits put the brakes on their ambitions for post-pandemic recovery.

New ideas and bold thinking are urgently needed, given the extent of these problems. Labour shortages are creeping upwards in the European Union and manufacturing companies report that it’s getting harder to hire. At the same time, 79 per cent report skills shortages, according to a 2020 report from technology industry trade body Digital Europe. “New graduates lack work-ready competences. Experienced ones got trained in a pre-digital, traditional manufacturing world,” write the report’s authors.

The pressure is on for manufacturing companies to offer better and more satisfying jobs, and to equip workers with the skills and training they need to perform them. Augmented reality (AR) technology could be an important part of that picture – but only if the employee experience takes centre stage in any implementation plans.

The uptake of AR - which overlays digital information onto physical objects and environments in the workplace and supports remote collaboration - has seen a sharp increase in the past year or so. During the pandemic, it proved its value in helping companies get around the challenges of remote working and social distancing in industrial environments. Now, employers should be looking at AR as a way to attract new employees to their organisations and to reskill and upskill existing workers.

So how can employers put AR to work in a people-centric way that delivers the best chances of business success? To my mind, they should always start with a problem, a pain point or a challenge. Anything that frustrates employees in their daily work, or slows them down, should be the baseline. In other words, when it comes to creating an AR experience, manufacturing leaders may be wondering ‘What should I build?’ or ‘How should I build it?’ These questions are for later. To begin, the most important question should be, ‘Why should I build it?’

For example, employees may struggle to set up or operate a particular piece of machinery on the factory floor. Work instructions, delivered by AR, could guide them through the best approach, step by step. When building products, they might use AR to refer back to the original CAD files to understand what components and parts they need to use and the way these fit together. Similarly, service engineers working in the field could use AR to collaborate with colleagues back at headquarters on the best way to fix a previously unseen fault with a customer product.

In each of these cases, and many more besides, AR solves a problem that might otherwise sap workers’ time, energy and patience. But the involvement of frontline employees shouldn’t end with their reporting of these pain points. In my experience, the best outcomes are delivered when employees continue to be consulted and involved as the project progresses and their needs, wants and concerns are met at every stage.

For example, employees should be included in use-case definition. Identifying a pain point is only the start. Companies need to then build whole use cases that don’t just address a single pain point, but aim to improve how whole workflows are performed. The best way to do that is to shadow employees and hear directly from them at what stages in a job or task they tend to struggle. Let them tell you where improvements are needed.

Similarly, when companies are preparing to make a significant investment in AR, they need to be confident they’ve asked the right questions upfront. Bad decisions at this stage could easily frustrate employees, forcing them to revert to old habits and practices. Does hardware and software work in the way that employees need it to, for example? Is the technology easy and comfortable to use, enabling them to consume the information they need, when they need it? Do proposed hardware formats work well with hands-free tasks? Does the proposed software platform have the potential to support other AR experiences as new use cases emerge? Involving employees in try-outs of proposed technology solutions will be vital.  

The importance of content to AR cannot be overestimated. After all, it’s what is used to augment reality! In industrial use cases, content may well take the form of CAD or PLM data, which contains key engineering information and knowledge about how products are built, configured and work. Work instructions, meanwhile, will need to be supplemented by the tacit knowledge contained in the heads of experienced workers who perform given tasks every day and know the best ways to get them done. Data from learning management systems may also be involved. Again, shadowing employees in their work enables them to report any gaps in data or information in the content streamed to them via AR. In short, what are the questions that they want AR to answer for them?

Finally, there’s the value of soliciting feedback from users. While many executive teams will understandably want to see improvements to key performance indicators (KPIs) on productivity, throughput and wastage from their use of AR, these are unlikely to follow unless employee feedback is given priority. Factory-floor work evolves all the time, especially when new machinery is introduced or new products are being built. Gathering feedback from frontline employees and acting on it is the best way to ensure that higher level KPIs are achieved - and that they continue to get met as work evolves.

It’s real ‘hearts and mind’ work, solving real problems for real people. But as a manufacturing organisation searches around for new people to hire, the fact that it’s using AR to make work better for existing employees is a great advert for its employer brand. But more than that, it empowers the people it already employs, increasing their capacity, skills and satisfaction in ways that mean they’re more likely to stay on board.

Sam Murley is worldwide digital transformation director for augmented reality products at PTC.

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