The early morning air was cold when we arrived at the mine for an underground visit. Our hosts were keen to show us the practical challenges of the drilling and blasting operation, and the many ways in which rock fragments containing ore are removed to the surface for processing. At the rock face the drilling process was an eye opener – hot, uncomfortable and hazardous. Knowing where to drill to optimise the blast pattern is a skilled operation. It was apparent that drilling was a manual operation, and there was a lot that could go wrong.
The aim of our visit was to see how augmented reality (AR) might be used to improve the drilling procedures, while enhancing safety. Could an AR display be used to help analyse and superimpose the most efficient layout of the drilling pattern on the rock face for marking the holes? Could a virtual device such as Google glass or Microsoft Hololens be practically used in such a harsh environment? Since then there have been many important developments in AR technologies, and innovations in heads-up displays now make many suitable for use in industrial environments. These displays, together with artificial intelligence and cognitive technologies, promise to be a game changer in the way operators will work in future.
What is augmented reality?
AR is the augmentation of the physical world with context aware visual information that can be used to help operators make better decisions, or help guide their actions. The visual information is usually text, a 2D drawing or a 3D model, object or hologram, which is overlaid onto the physical world. In the control room environment, AR can be seen as an evolution of the human machine interface (HMI). With new augmented reality technologies, we can now move out of the control room and support field operators and maintenance technicians with real-time process information in the field.
The same design considerations that apply to good control room HMI also apply to AR systems. The goal is to provide additional information to improve decision making, not replace human judgement or take away responsibility for decisions or actions taken
In industrial manufacturing, there are many practical examples of AR applications. The business goal is to reduce costs, improve productivity and enhance safety.
In complex assembly or maintenance procedures, augmented reality can help with a visualisation of the right way to assemble or disassemble a piece of equipment. The display can provide quick access to visualisations of the task at hand based on 3D models that provide a technician with step by step instructions.
AR technologies can be used to inspect items of equipment in the field for quality control purposes. The actual item can be compared with a reference image and AI techniques used to indicate a pass/fail when any defects are detected.
Human experts can remotely assist field technicians with complex tasks by monitoring the work being done through a camera and providing guidance on complex procedures. This can be particularly useful where expert skills are scarce and not located on site.
AR systems can identify elevated safety risk to warn people working in the field. This can be determined by a visual analysis combined with data from the DCS/scada and IIoT devices and the maintenance/work permit systems.
The location of people can be tracked through IIoT devices and this information presented on an AR display to improve coordination and productivity of teams in the field. This could be particularly useful in highly regulated or hazardous plants, as well as for supporting rescue operations.
The HMI dilemma
Since the system as a whole needs to take into account human behaviour and this can introduce several design challenges. There is a real risk of a human placing too much reliance/trust in the system and not paying sufficient attention to the whole environment. The system ideally needs to recommend rather than instruct the operator.
The growth of AR technologies will result in more and more industrial manufacturing applications becoming mainstream. Areas such as expert support and complex assembly/maintenance are the most likely to see early adoption of systems, particularly where there are many identical repetitive but complex tasks to be performed.
Caution is advisable, as with any emerging technology. Start by becoming familiar with exactly what technology is available and find out what the vendors are working on. Look for practical case studies in your industry that can guide you away from making expensive mistakes. In deciding on AR investments, always be led by the business priorities and do not get carried away by hype.
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