By Mitchell Duncan, technical writer

Manufacturing methods for products continue to be the focus of intense R&D (e.g. 3D printing), resulting in some significant reductions in cost and associated productivity gains. However, the maintenance of these products often exceeding 30% of the operating costs, and seems stubbornly immune to such innovative forces.

Maximise product efficiency AND minimise costs.

The challenge in manufacturing is to maximise product equipment operational availability, maintainability and safety while lowering cost. One strategy used to meet this challenge, and is the one most commonly used, is to perform regular and preventive maintenance activities, especially in products that require it frequently. This can be an expensive activity, especially where; there are a large variety of tasks from diagnosis to repair, the equipment demands a varying complexity of maintenance requirements, the inventory comprises a large number of equipment types to maintain and the upkeep of documentation is onerous.

Recent technology advances have spawned new software systems to assist in the maintenance effort, namely Products-Service Systems (PSS), that provide a manufacturer-to-technician support environment, which encompasses real-time responsiveness, access to a large store of product data and Augmented Reality at it core.

Augmented Reality for Maintenance and Repair (ARMAR) to the rescue.

Augmented reality is the technology which allows for the superimposition of 2D &3D graphics, video, text or other media on, and registered with, surrounding objects in the environment. It uses either a tablet device, or specially configured headgear (head mounted display), that include a camera and display functionality as part of their design. This allows the user to acquire visual data from the environment and receive feedback from the supporting IT system.

These systems make it possible to rapidly train technicians for maintenance tasks, and actively assist them during the performance of normal work activities. They do this within the task environment, by directly referencing the equipment at the centre of the user’s focus, by providing instruction and support directly to the technician’s headset. The technician is able to readily switch their attention between the task and the separate, associated documentation, without ever needing to refer to separate paper or electronic technical material. Some systems allow for the technician to call upon expert assistance if required.

Why the low take-up rate?

Despite the significant and apparent benefits of the technology, the take-up rate in industry appears to be slow. Part of this seems to be that the fundamental enabling technologies are complex and include; eye movement detection, voice-based interaction, gesture interpretation, object recognition and depth-sensing capabilities. These technologies are still at a point where, when integrated into a system, do not deliver a comfortable smooth operational experience for the user, and so the overall offering is not well received. The key, it seems, is developing these technologies to an individual, acceptable standard and to integrate them into a product which the user finds immediately suitable and functional.

There is no doubt that ARMAR has significant promise for industry. It has the potential to reduce training costs, lower overall cost of ownership of assets, support quality assurance over the life of an asset and to improve safety for maintenance technicians in the field. It remains to be seen whether these promises can be realised, or the technology will become another by-way on the road to efficiency.

Image credits: Augmented Reality for Maintenance and Repair (ARMAR), Steven J. Henderson, Steven K. Feiner.