How augmented reality, Industry 4.0 can improve worker safety, productivity

Technologies such as augmented reality (AR) can help close the skill and talent gap while enhancing worker and asset safety and productivity.

By Manish Chawla November 19, 2021
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

A technician retires from a chemical facility. Shortly after the farewell party, something goes wrong with a piece of equipment. Nobody on the job can quite figure out what the problem is so they bring the technician back out of retirement. He walks around and listens to the machines for about 30 minutes before settling on one where he moves a single knob 20 degrees to the left.

He says, “All set. That’ll be $10,000.” His old colleagues balk at the high price for such a short job. “Well, moving the knob was just a $1,” the old technician says. “Knowing which knob costs $9,999.”

It’s a popular little anecdote among people tasked with taking care of critical equipment and large facilities, where we rely heavily on institutional knowledge and an aging workforce to manage an operating environment that is getting more complex. Companies must manage a mix of new assets and older ones, keep existing equipment running while investing in improvements and react to a rapidly changing environment and technological change. They must accomplish all of this despite labor shortages and a growing skills gap.

There are many reasons for dearth of employees: A high volume of workers retiring, and in some ways, perception challenges that hamper the industry to recruit and retain fresh, young talent. Further, as the industry invests in digital transformation, the skills gap grows. In fact, an IBM survey of 600 industrial product executives in 18 countries found only half of respondents say they have the required people and skills to execute their digital strategy.

However, emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR) can help close the skill and talent gap while enhancing worker and asset safety and productivity.

Practical augmented reality applications

Augmented reality is a form of technology where volumes of data and analytics can be transformed into images or animations overlaid into the real world. Most often, this is facilitated through a mobile device. When coupled with AI, AR can enable such use cases as object detection and recognition, labeling, guided repair and more.

Before the pandemic hit, many companies were already building AR-based applications to support various areas of their business: Gartner estimates 70% of small-to-medium sized enterprises were set to embrace some form of augmented reality by 2022. Today, augmented reality use cases in industrial settings focus on three key areas: training, improved workflows for tasks such as repairing damaged equipment, and employee engagement.

Considering training workers. According to one study, by using AR instead of documentation, Boeing reported a 90% increase in the number of trainees with little or no experience who could perform a complex, 50-step operation correctly the first time. In manufacturing settings, technicians working with AR improved performance by as much as 34% on the employee’s first use. AR appeals to a digitally native workforce adept at learning new tools and figuring out processes for themselves. From a training perspective, AR also can solve the problem facing the chemical plant in our story.

By making it possible for a technician onsite to collaborate with an expert or mentor in a different location, AR makes it easier for manufacturers and facilities to hold on to institutional knowledge and let younger technicians learn from more experienced ones.

Removing memorization and guesswork

As AR and computer vision and recognition become more embedded across the organization, training itself tends to become simpler while reducing errors and mistakes. With traditional training, technicians had to memorize parts, parts numbers and the other specifics of a machine in order to do their jobs. Today, technicians can use AR to recognize components for them.

Augmented reality is also unlocking immense productivity benefits through its incorporation into intelligent workflows, often by overlaying the right digital information onto a physical environment. In manufacturing, this leads to immense improvements in product line planning, product development and the refinement of digital prototypes. In some cases, manufacturers can dispense with the traditional prototyping process entirely, using AR and glasses to test and refine assembly processes entirely virtually.

Accurate “digital twins” of heavy assets, prototypes and machinery can also be used to create augmented reality programs that support training, product development and sales by making it easy to represent complex equipment in a physical space. When important equipment does breaks down, technicians can use AR to remotely collaborate with experts, making it easier to execute repairs and reduce downtime.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of better training and employee engagement, reduced errors and improved productivity are critical. Augmented reality has the potential to overlay the information technicians and manufacturers need directly over the physical environment where equipment is being repaired or produced. As companies invest in greater resilience, greater productivity and – most importantly – happier, more engaged, and more productive employees, augmented reality will continue to play a critical role.

Manish Chawla is global general manager for industrials at IBM, a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Manish Chawla, industry general manager, energy, resources, and manufacturing at IBM