Markets & Sectors

Virtual Reality In Manufacturing

24 Jan , 2017  

Although virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are years away from mainstream adoption in manufacturing, it seems they have a prosperous future, according to Leroy Spence, Head of Sales Development at industrial spares supplier EU Automation, who has been looking at how AR and VR are changing the world of manufacturing.

Like any disruptive technology with roots in the consumer market, Spence says that industry viewed VR with a certain level of scepticism to begin with. Many companies questioned the practical applications of the concept, labelling it another gimmick that would not stand up to the rugged manufacturing environment. However, he says, like Ethernet, touch screen and mobile devices proved before it, VR has real-world manufacturing potential.

A PwC survey at the beginning of 2016 found that more than a third of the US manufacturers surveyed already used VR technology or planned to do so in the next three years.

The automotive market tends to be an early adopter of disruptive technologies — including automation, robotics and now VR.

The US automotive manufacturer Ford built its own immersion lab where designers, engineers and other employees can don an Oculus Rift headset and walk around exploring the exterior and interior of its cars.

Ford uses VR to test its designs and assess how individual elements of a vehicle look, without having to build a physical car. The VR links directly with the company’s computer aided design (CAD) software, so engineers can make changes and visualise results quickly and easily.

Another area in which manufacturers are seeing VR shine, is training. The British engineering firm, BAE Systems is creating virtual representations of projects, such as ships, for engineers to practice on.

BAE’s virtualisation suites allow engineers to examine the virtual elements of a system, so they can analyse, design and plot where they need to make changes in the physical world. VR provides a level of test redundancy by giving engineers the chance to try out changes before they make any final alterations.

VR training programmes can simulate realistic and hazardous situations on the manufacturing floor, including chemical spills, dangerous machinery and loud environments, without putting operators at risk. Should the unavoidable happen, employees have relatable experience and are more likely to react appropriately in emergency.

Perhaps one of the biggest indicators of the potential of AR and VR for industry has come from a shift in recruitment at major engineering companies. Recently, firms have been very open about actively recruiting graduates with game design degrees. Astute with VR, Android and mobile technology, this next generation of engineering recruits are helping make Industry 4.0 and Internet of Things (IoT) applications a reality.

Although VR and AR are years away from mainstream adoption in manufacturing, the technology is being put to good use by a minority of progressive companies, looking for a competitive edge. It seems VR and AR both have a prosperous future in the manufacturing industry; those willing to invest in the virtual world will be rewarded in the physical.

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Andy Pye

Andy Pye

Andy Pye has been an editor and technical writer serving UK manufacturing industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently Managing Editor of Controls, Drives and Automation and editor of Environmental Engineering, two leading bimonthly titles. Andy is a Cambridge University graduate in Materials Engineering. In the 1970s, prior to entering the technical publishing industry, he worked for a consultancy organisation where he became an international authority on asbestos substitution and edited a major materials selection system for engineers.