Virtual reality (VR) may be viewed by most people as a very recent invention. However, the first VR headset was created as far back as 1968 by computer scientist, Ivan Sutherland. It was called the sword of Damocles, as its formidable size and weight meant it had to be anchored to the ceiling so it didn’t crush the user – a far cry from the modern Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens.
Almost 50 years on from the first VR headset we are now beginning to see VR and augmented reality (AR) being used in manufacturing environments. Here Leroy Spence, Head of Sales Development at industrial spares supplier EU Automation, looks at how AR and VR are changing the world of manufacturing.
Like any disruptive technology with roots in the consumer market, industry has until now viewed VR with a certain level of scepticism. Many companies questioned the practical applications of the concept, labelling it another gimmick that would not stand up to the rugged manufacturing environment. However, like Ethernet, touchscreen and mobile devices before it, VR has real world manufacturing potential.
New concepts and technologies are prone to hype. In 2015, Gartner's Hype Cycle saw VR emerging from the Trough of Disillusionment into the Slope of Enlightenment – this means VR started being used for real world useful applications. In 2016, it is likely that the technology will continue its ascent as more manufacturers start to take advantage of its benefits.
Indeed, 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, recently revealed that it creates 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 an emergency.
Furthermore, VR is an effective way of teaching machine operators or maintenance technicians about a new piece of equipment on the factory floor. Visualising the inner components of devices allows companies to make detailed maintenance plans. This process is useful for identifying obsolete components or predicting which parts the original equipment manufacturer will cease to support in the near future.
This allows plant managers to create an effective obsolescence management plan, which could involve stocking up on spare parts or opting for a redesign.
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.