It’s no secret that the UK manufacturing sector is facing a number of issues at the moment—these range from tackling a widening skills gap and falling productivity levels, to our forthcoming departure from the EU. In August, figures from the Institute of Procurement and Supply revealed how factory output in Britain slipped to a seven-year low, despite efforts to stockpile goods in the run up to the original Brexit deadline.
Earlier in the year these same stockpiling efforts provided the industry with a much needed boost—taking factory output up by 2.2 per cent in May—but the effects have proved short-lived. Since then, it has become evident that short-term stockpiling will not pave the way for sustained success. For manufacturers looking to assure market growth, the adoption of innovative and forward-looking technologies—including virtual manufacturing—will prove crucial for boosting their long-term manufacturing performance.
Despite the fact that many commercial enterprises are already leveraging new technologies like virtual—and augmented reality (AR)—to unlock productivity and growth, this technology has yet to reach widespread adoption across the manufacturing sector. Indeed, 30 per cent of US firms characterise their use of virtual and augmented reality technology as ‘not yet adopted’, while over a third (38 per cent) are either currently adopting it, or have plans to adopt it within the next three years.
Given the range of applications that virtual reality (VR) can offer manufacturing—from complex assembly to support and training—manufacturers who ignore these technologies are turning a blind eye to where the industry is heading.
Embracing a new manufacturing reality
Leveraging technologies such as the Hololens by Microsoft, a mixed reality head-mounted display designed to empower the entire workforce, is a first step that manufacturers can take in adopting virtual technologies. The Hololens, like many other virtual and augmented reality glasses, works by providing the user with a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with, in a seemingly real or physical way.
Mixed reality solutions such as these, which combine artificial intelligence, apps, and augmented realities, are proving extremely beneficial to manufacturers, helping them to visualise and optimise the arrangement of production on the shop floor before actually putting changes in place. Manufacturing processes, as a result, can be vastly improved, as operators are able to understand what is going on within the ‘guts’ of the machines they are operating—something which is often hard to see with the naked eye.
Increased efficiency—the key to greater agility
In addition to this, virtual reality can also offer manufacturers real-time access to the operational status of a machine. Using an augmented reality display, manufacturers can identify operational issues before these become a problem and avoid unnecessary machine downtime—saving valuable time and money.
Having these insights so readily available means certain maintenance tasks can be completed by workers with limited technical expertise—effectively alleviating a strained workforce. By projecting vital information directly onto machinery, employees can greatly reduce their reliance on instruction manuals and other reference tools when fixing equipment across the factory floor. Automotive manufacturers such as Ford, Volvo, and Hyundai, are already using VR technology to improve a range of business processes including design, safety, and purchasing.
For new employees entering the workforce, or existing workers who require upskilling, wearables such as AR glasses can offer remote support. Rather than undergoing time-consuming off-site and expensive training, employees wearing AR glasses can be guided step-by-step through processes by following a simulation.
A look into the future
In today’s increasingly competitive and uncertain manufacturing landscape, the ability to simulate processes and equipment across the entire factory floor will prove invaluable. Insights gained from VR technologies, such as predictive analytics, can help manufacturers anticipate outcomes before these happen and in doing so, optimise a number of work-floor processes.
Whilst Industry 4.0 technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the industrial internet of things (IoT) are already being implemented by manufacturers to provide data-driven operational insights in today’s modern factory, the sheer volume of data is becoming increasingly difficult to manage, let alone use.
According to recent research, nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of employees claim they’re dealing with more and more data. Indeed, 60 per cent say that the amount of data and information they receive daily can sometimes make it hard to make the right choices. Virtual, augmented or mixed realities, however, can enable manufacturers to break through the data deluge and visualise data in a way that is easier to digest and analyse.
By enabling manufacturers to interact with data in a virtual world, businesses can streamline information so that it can be used in a meaningful manner, aiding decision-making and productivity across an entire company. Achieving this enhanced visibility and clarity of data will be essential for future growth, and to achieve the agility needed to adapt to a rapidly changing manufacturing marketplace.
Preparing for sustained success
The benefits of virtual reality adoption extend far beyond the optimisation of existing processes. Virtual and augmented realities can help manufacturers bring ideas or concepts to life without the need to shut down equipment or production lines.
Innovations of this kind will be essential for surviving the prolonged market turbulence that UK manufacturers currently face—and will no doubt face until well after our departure from the EU. However, to support the integration of virtual reality, manufacturers will need a flexible enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform to bring their factory operations and other systems together in an integrated manner—bridging the gap between people, technology, and data.
By investing in tools that can boost productivity and performance, and the right supporting systems, manufacturers will be well-placed to seize the opportunities that lie ahead. Unlike stockpiling, which previously provided a short-term economic boost for manufacturers, new and innovative technologies will be key to long-term growth.
Terri Hiskey, vice president, global product marketing for manufacturing, Epicor Software