Mention the phrase “user experience” and most people think about the intuitiveness of office software.
It’s true that vendors are increasingly focused on delivering more modular, personalized applications that adapt to the needs of white-collar workers. But providing an engaging user experience is important to other workers as well.
SAP has launched its new thought leadership journal Horizons by SAP, which brings together global tech leaders from various companies to share their perspective on the future of IT. In the coming weeks, one article from the journal will appear the SAP News Center per week. Here, Brian Ballard, founder and CEO of Upskill, discusses how augmented reality technologies can help workers to be more productive.
Augmented reality (AR) technologies are helping factory employees work more productively and accurately and are being applied in use cases that include product assembly, machine repair, and equipment service. From non-immersive displays to immersive mixed reality applications, AR tools are expanding from the shop floor to remote field service environments and more. And because these applications are being built on open, modular platforms, they may soon be integrated into core business systems.
To better understand how AR is improving the user experience for shop-floor workers, Horizons by SAP sat down with Brian Ballard, CEO of AR software industry leader Upskill. The following are some highlights of the conversation.
Q: AR and virtual reality (VR) technologies spark the imagination, thanks to science fiction and some high-profile gaming technologies. But AR tools have a practical role in the workplace, right?
A: We think of it as a wearable world, where AR will offer a new field of view through glasses and visual devices. There’s also a class of AR happening now on phones and tablets, where the camera is seeing the world and the user adds information to that. There are different tools for different jobs, but one area of AR that is definitely growing is on the factory floor.
Is this part of what’s typically considered the digital factory?
Exactly. In factories, warehouses, and the field, AR is a tool for the workforce. It’s an extension of a worker’s utility, augmented with better access to information and real-time connections to the systems around them. AR will be a force multiplier for the workforce. Bringing that information into the job will be a real game changer, and AR will be the way that workers get it.
What are some of the latest AR technology developments?
We see a steady release of new technology in both mixed reality and assisted reality devices. Microsoft recently introduced the new HoloLens 2, which are mixed reality smart glasses with a more pronounced business focus than earlier generations. And the comfort of new devices is much better. In some ways, better wearability actually trumps some of the technology enhancements, because greater comfort encourages people to use the devices more.
But there are plenty of technology improvements too.
That’s right. In the assisted reality space, battery-life improvements are beginning to allow all-day wear from devices such as Glass Enterprise Edition. Manufacturers have begun targeting enterprise use cases with more-rugged devices, better cameras, and more-sophisticated voice processing. Certainly, with improved sensors on the devices, we can also pull in more-advanced server-side or cloud-based processing to enrich and augment the intelligence of the whole system.
That really extends the reach of the technology.
You see these devices being used on oil rigs, in warehouses, and on factory floors. People wear them all day, every day, as part of their work kit. As companies integrate these devices into their work processes, we’re moving toward a desk-free workforce. I don’t expect it will ever go back to the old paper-based technology.
This is an investment that will improve people’s lives and their work on the factory floor. Are CIOs ready to meet the need for worker technology?
Companies need to interact with hands-on employees in a software-centric way. And this is not yet the norm. Most businesses support white collar workers with spreadsheets, e-mail, and word-processing tools. But rarely have they made it a priority to digitalize the other 50 percent of the workforce. That’s changing with AR. CIOs and their counterparts, such as chief digital officers (CDOs), need to be aware of this and have a plan for how to work together to deliver value to that part of their business.
Manufacturers are increasingly producing more-individualized products. For the shop floor, that means there are more product variances and complexity. How can AR help workers be more productive in this climate?
Leading manufacturers are already using AR to seamlessly guide workers through customized or changing job tasks. There’s huge potential there to boost productivity while increasing product complexity or customization. Also, if you can reskill or retrain people faster, it’s easier to support highly distributed, flexible manufacturing strategies. AR lets you create a tight digital thread of data between design and manufacturing. A designer can change a product spec, click a button, and the information is immediately passed to the shop-floor worker. We’ve talked about this for years, but there has always been a block between systems and people. That wall has finally come down.
It sounds like that connection would shorten the feedback loop from design to production. Are there other ways that AR supports collaboration?
“See what I see” features let an expert view things from the user’s perspective. Imagine that a designer tweaks the design and the operator finds a problem. Since they are both seeing the same thing, the designer can quickly make changes and resend the updated design. This feature is commonly used in field service, where a repair person can share a problem with an expert and receive instant guidance.
Horizons by SAP is a future-focused IT journal. Thought leaders from the global tech ecosystem share their thinking about how new technologies and major business trends will impact our customers’ landscapes in the fast-arriving future. The first issue, available at www.sap.com/horizons, revolves around the implications and opportunities of modular IT.
Is modularization reshaping AR technologies and uses?
Absolutely. We think of it in terms of building platforms that modularize individual work processes. By taking the platform approach and adding modular components on top, businesses can employ application modules while retaining the platform’s security and management functionality.
Will increasing modularization – of both AR and enterprise systems – help developers embed more AR and VR into their business models and processes? For example, will we see AR and VR embedded into enterprise resource planning (ERP) or manufacturing execution systems (MES)?
That‘s the obvious evolution of the technology. In the last decade, productivity increases have been measured in single digits. Yet we constantly see improvements of 30, 50, and 100 percent in processes that use AR. I think you’ll see a global economic jump in productivity once this technology is widely adopted.
What are the current obstacles for integrating AR with ERP and MES systems? Where do software companies need to improve?
On the assisted reality side, integration into those systems is pretty straightforward. It’s easy to take advantage of traditional data structures. In two to three years, when more of the design and build process develops a 3D component, we will need to develop a pipeline between the design and assembly sides of the manufacturing world. How do you deconstruct 3D models and present them in a way that is consumable quickly at the edge? We’re working with partners to determine how to deconstruct work into an AR-native format. That’s where exciting work is happening.
5G networks are on the horizon. How will they support AR?
5G will be extremely impactful, especially once the next generation of 5G-capable devices comes to the shop floor. 5G will provide not only bandwidth but also a quality of service that is critical in factories running Internet of Things technology. It may take a couple of years to roll out the infra-structure – both chips and towers – but I am excited for 5G.
How should companies begin to move forward with AR technologies in a modularized world?
AR is not one size fits all. You need to apply the right combination of technologies to the problems you want to solve. We advise people to think about operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT). OT needs to identify the use cases that matter. IT needs to establish some level of digital maturity to take advantage of the technology at scale.
We’re seeing some pilot implementations being deployed for one-of-a-kind production issues – such as making unique cabling connections in a data center. Is that where AR is likely to be used most?
We actually approach it from the opposite perspective. Repetitive processes can be a great starting point for AR. Take your data center example. Few workers can memorize all of the information needed to work on every cabinet in the data center. But the company probably has detailed records of how to build or maintain each server. By putting the information in front of the worker, you can decrease errors and reduce shop-floor confusion. Having technology that reduces worker frustration and makes the job a little easier is a great way to boost good will.
Are you saying that efficiency isn’t the main benefit of AR?
Productivity is important. But first-time quality tends to be a bigger driver for our customers. For manufacturers, warranty claims are measured in the tens of millions of dollars. If you can avoid that with better first-time manufacturing quality, you’re way ahead.
How do companies measure AR return on investment?
Let’s say you’re in a warehouse environment. By putting information in a worker’s line of sight and eliminating the need to put down tools to check instructions, you can realize a 10 to 20 percent productivity improvement. For a manufacturer building capital assets, AR commonly increases productivity by 30 to 50 percent. That’s great. But if you avoid one quality issue, you could pay for the system in savings.
What advice can you offer companies that want to get started with modular AR technologies?
Don’t view this as an experiment. Instead, choose an area where it will drive real business value. Sometimes people put a toe in the water but they don‘t bring the right resources to support the project. They can do the project four to six times before they get it right. In fact, companies tend to see higher benefits when they implement large-scale versus small-scale AR projects.
What’s the better approach?
Identify a problem to solve where you can use AR as a tool. It should be a problem that matters, one that touches the workforce, production systems, IT, and mobility. By coming to the table knowing who to work with, companies realize much faster and often at a lower cost than by running a couple of experiments that go nowhere.
Who should be on the team?
Sometimes we hear from operational business owners, such as the vice president of manufacturing. We ask who they’re working with on the IT side. If they haven’t identified someone, we encourage them to connect with the CIO team. If we’re approached by an IT team that wants to build a cool feature, we ask them who on the OT side will consume the technology? More and more, these two elements of the business will be working hand in hand, so we need to make sure both sides are represented.