When the terms Augmented, Virtual, Mixed, Extended Reality are cited, thoughts can often head straight towards gaming. However, their applications are much broader than the gaming sector.
In this article, Sarg Senthil (Metaverse Lead, Kagool & Member of CNM Digital Board) explores how these technologies can be used within the manufacturing sector and crucially, what business needs to consider before considering adaptation.
Before delving further, one important takeaway is that to get started with these technologies it does not mean you need an expensive headset! AR applications can be created for smartphones, tablets and even for laptops/PCs. For example, here at Kagool many experiences have been developed for businesses that are purely web-based – you can essentially view them from your local web browser! In fact, over the last 3 years, many headset manufacturers have targeted to use an open-standard which enables a cross-platform experience (use it across many different devices) (Unity OpenXR, 2023). This cross-platform experience is a step in the right direction for a true metaverse experience.
To ensure that the right technologies are chosen by the business, there are few self-check questions to complete as outlined below:
- Has the company experimented with technologies such as Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality before? If so, what project/experiments were carried out and how did it go? If it went badly, do you know exactly why?
- Based on the above, does the company have the budget or capacity to further delve into the technologies or even get started?
- Does the company currently use Internet of Things, Digital Twins or Data Science technologies? Are these three technologies interoperable?
- Is the company using any cloud vendors such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, etc?
These are some of the key questions one should ask before starting a project with VR/AR/MR technologies. Most often, the project/experimentation objective is either not the right choice or it is too ambitious (Accenture, 2023). If it is ambitious, the objective must be more simple and clearer – think of achieving this ‘ambitious objective’ in smaller steps. Each step should prove a value/return of investment to business before proceeding to the next smaller objective.
Next, the ‘cost of a headset’ should not be a blocker particularly if the company is new to VR, AR or MR! In fact, starting small using a tablet/phone that runs either Android or Apple should be the first step. The most ‘expensive’ part of creating immersive VR, AR, MR content would be the time investment made to upskill a worker using various software tools such as Unity (game-engine used to create the immersive experience) and Blender (3D modelling tool) (Bouw, 2018). If a company is already on a cloud vendor, such as Microsoft Azure, leveraging an existing service such as Azure Digital Twins might prove to be more time-efficient and more business value-driven; using Azure Digital Twins a company can utilise real-time IoT data on top of a 3D model to create real-time alerts and go back in time to predict the future better (Microsoft Digital Twin, 2023). In addition, users can view colour coded 3D models highlighting areas of concerns by either using simple numeric threshold boundaries or data science driven numeric boundaries.
Metaverse can be broken down into the following three categories:
- Enterprise Metaverse: This type of Metaverse offers businesses internally to become ‘more productive’ through use of immersive virtual spaces, avatars and 3D content (IoTOne, 2023). Microsoft recently announced a new feature within Microsoft Teams – Avatars (Microsoft Mesh for Teams) (Roach, 2021). Employees can create their own look-alike avatars (or even go beyond their imagination) and select this avatar during video calls. The roadmap for Microsoft mesh includes immersive spaces where employees can interact in a room using their avatars.
- Consumer Metaverse: This type of Metaverse is well known and used day-to-day – social interactions. This includes gaming, socialising and shopping (Purdy, 2023). People with devices such as Meta Quest, HTC Vive, HP Reverb, etc. are usually able to purchase a game/application from an App Store and use it as they need. Some applications/games enable people using such devices to play/interact with their friends or even get to meet new people around the world
- Industrial Metaverse: This type of Metaverse brings technologies such as the Internet of Things (known as IoT), Data Science and Digital Twins together (Sanders, 2023). Physical environments blend with the virtual/digital environment. Factories, machines, buildings and cities are mirrored in a virtual environment (Siemens, 2023). Industrial Metaverse offers various key benefits for businesses including improved industrial efficiency and predictive maintenance resulting in reduced environmental impacts and cost savings (Kashalkar, 2023).
As Industrial Metaverse includes technologies such as Internet of Things and Data Science, businesses may not realise that they may be closer to Industrial Metaverse than they might think. The digital transition from Industry 3.0 (automation of processes) to 4.0 (data driven automation) gives manufacturing companies an edge of utilising the vast amount of manufacturing data to optimise many aspects of their businesses (Audaces, 2023). Below are some of the many key business values Industrial Metaverse provides:
- Predictive Maintenance: On a very high-level, predictive maintenance is a condition-based monitoring method which is intended to reduce the chances of machine breakdown; using this type of maintenance, manufacturers are able to predict equipment failure based on certain parameters and prevent failure through corrective procedures (manual action) (Tibco, 2023). To truly achieve this type of maintenance, a manufacturer typically requires huge volumes of historical machine data, advanced analytics and data science (Tibco, 2023). With predictive maintenance, a manufacturer can expect to achieve more than 90% overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) (Tibco, 2023). Essentially, predictive maintenance expands on the underlying technologies of Internet of Things (IoT) and Data Science. Using IoT and Data Science the next obvious step should be a ‘digital twin’ – a digital representation of physical assets or factories. The word ‘digital twin’ can be very ambiguous for certain industries/people; some would say it should simulate real-world physics, e.g. if a force is applied to a machine the digital twin should reflect as it would happen with the physical machine (Unity, 2023). Others are happy to class a ‘digital twin’ that simply overlays IoT data on top of an interactive 3D model (Marr, 2022). The ambiguity of the definition of a ‘digital twin’ will not be discussed, however, one should keep in mind how others would interpret a digital twin. To get started, a ‘simplified’ digital twin – one that is an interactive 3D model and overlays IoT telemetries is a good ‘digital twin’ to aim for in the first iteration. With this target, if any machine learning models have been trained and deployed in the past to predict machine/component failures, they can be reutilised otherwise they can be trained and deployed at a digital twin level (second iteration). Using the predicted results of the machine learning model, colour coding specific components in the 3D digital twin to highlight any issues for an engineer/operator would be a good aim for the next iteration (third iteration). When any issues are highlighted on the digital twin, integration with other systems such as SAP (Enterprise Resource Planning Software) or Microsoft Dynamics 365 Field Service enable automated work orders creation allowing engineers / operators to order replacement parts before visiting the machine site (Microsoft Dynamics, 2023).
- Accelerated training: Another key use-case of Industrial metaverse is the ability to upskill employees much faster compared to traditional text-book methods (Accenture, 2023). Simulating real-life scenarios can ensure individuals are prepared to handle tricky or even one-off situations that might arise at the workplace/factory. In manufacturing environments, holographic training could include 3D models of manufacturing assets allowing frontline workers to understand machines/assets much more in-depth (Cheng, 2023). Frontline workers can ‘explode’ the 3D machine model – break down the 3D model in its sub-assemblies – and explore machine components in much more granular detail. This, of course, could prove to be very dangerous (or even impossible) with real physical machines.
- Collaboration: One of the key features of Metaverse is the ability to play and communicate with people across the world. Industrial Metaverse translates these concepts by allowing real-time collaboration between workers for various needs including product prototyping and optimising (Nokia, 2023). Imagine with a touch of a button, engineers across the world can join together in a private room/seminar style virtual room and upload different 3D models and annotate just as one would with a whiteboard; this is what Microsoft Mesh is trying to offer (Microsoft Mesh, 2023). The XR industry is pushing headset manufacturers to be more considered for software application developers when releasing their devices to the public; OpenXR’s cross-platform standards enforces reusability of the same software application across multiple headset devices – in some cases even if one headset does not offer a capability/feature as another headset, the capability/feature would simply be turned off (OpenXR, 2023). This in effect will mean workers can collaborate regardless of what headset/device they want to use provided they have the same software application installed on their device.
This article’s main purpose is to introduce how transformative technologies such as Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality can be applied in businesses especially in the manufacturing industry. There is no need to have costly headsets to get started, however, it is very likely time-investment to upskill workers will be required both from an operational perspective and development. The key-term ‘Digital twins’ is being heard amongst manufacturing peers more often and challenges remain to create a ‘true’ digital twin due to the complexities in recreating them exactly as it would represent in the physical world. Industrial Metaverse includes Internet of Things (IoT), Data Science and Digital Twins – all applicable to manufacturing industries; all manufacturing firms need to leverage the capabilities of Industrial Metaverse to stay at a competitive edge.
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ABOUT OUR AUTHOR:
Sargithan Senthilselvan has been working with Oculus Quest (now known as Meta Quest) and Microsoft HoloLens for over 4 years. He works with businesses to embark their journey with AR, VR, MR and Digital Twins. His experience in data engineering and real-time systems architecture enables him to help businesses to harmonise disparate real-time datasets and combine them in a way that enables businesses to represent their processes, machines and assets all over the world in a digital format – a Digital Twin. Business users can then view the statuses of any asset in real-time and send back commands to this asset (e.g. to turn off).
Sarg is also a member of the Centre’s Digital Leadership Board.