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Is the production floor ready for AR smart glasses?

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

In this harsh business climate where increased productivity and efficiency are essential to survival, everyone is looking for new ways to improve their business. The possibilities of technologies such as augmented reality smart glasses (ARSG) are being explored within both private companies and academia. The question is, where can this technology be used and is industry ready for it?

AR smart glasses, model HoloLens 2.

To explore this question, we contacted with Master programme in engineering student Martina Andersson from Mälardalen University, who did a case study with HoloLens 2 glasses at ABB in the summer of 2020. We also spoke with Oscar Danielsson, a PhD student in Informatics, at the University of Skövde, which is one of the most highly skilled universities in Sweden in AR research. While virtual reality (VR), a more widely known technology and often confused with AR, is a fully simulated experience, AR is an interactive experience. The room you are in is fully visual to you and the objects that reside in this room are enhanced by computer-generated visual information. It is this aspect of AR that is interesting for industry to investigate.

Martina’s case study was part of a summer course run by Mälardalen University and ABB Robotics in Västerås. In the project, Martina Andersson aimed to investigate if AR smart glasses could be used for quality assurance of the assembly.

“I had never heard of AR before this so the first thing I had to do was to find out as much as possible about the subject.”

Not for everything

Martina first contacted Bertil Thorvaldsson, an ABB employee and senior advisor at the University of Skövde. To start up Martina’s work, he sent her HoloLens 2, the glasses with the latest technology. During the research phase, she contacted AR researchers at the University of Skövde, Oscar Danielsson was one of these.

“While reading up on the subject and picturing the scenario, it became obvious that this technology, as it is now, would not work for this type of task. It just isn’t possible, just by using AR, to confirm that the components are correctly assembled. To confirm my suspicions, I contacted Oscar Danielsson at the University of Skövde.”

Oscar Danielsson’s research focus is AR smart glasses as operator support, which quickly made him an ideal speaking partner for Martina Andersson.

“Yes, I confirmed Martina’s suspicions. It is one thing to present a virtual 3D object in front of a user, but to actually make AR smart glasses that see and understand what real objects are and spot quality differences and other details about real objects, well, that is a lot more challenging.”

Inducting new staff

Instead Martina Andersson started to explore whether AR smart glasses could be an alternative to inducting new staff, a process where most workplaces have similar set-ups. Normally, new staff will have support from a co-worker for a couple of days and up to two weeks, along with manuals such as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Now, imagine that you are new at your job. But instead of looking for the SOPs, or having a stressed colleague looking over your shoulder, you just put on the AR smart glasses you’ve been given. These glasses then give you step-by-step instructions on how to complete your task, while all along you remain in control with the help of eye-tracking.

Sounds great, but does it work? That is just what Martina needed to find out.

“I put together three groups that each had three unexperienced operators in them. Operators in group 1 were trained by a colleague, in group 2 the operator was given the smart glasses, and in group 3 the operator had initial help from a colleague and for the rest of the induction period, the operator wore HoloLens 2 smart glasses. Each group did the test three times, making a total of 27 tests.

Oscar Danielsson demonstrates the HoloLens 2.

Best results with a combination

“It was very interesting to see that the conditions for group 3 were the optimal way to induct new staff. With the support of AR smart glasses, it only required one day of co-worker support. Potentially this can save companies quite a lot of money because experienced staff can return to their own workstations much sooner. So if we had 10 workstations where five of them have experienced staff and five are using summer workers, another five experienced staff are needed to induct the new staff. In total, that means the company has to pay 15 people during the induction period,” says Martina.

Martina is now back at university for her final year but her summer project is still very much alive. One of ABB’s employees has now been assigned to further investigate how this technology can be implemented. Martina’s calculations show that the initial outlay would be recouped after the second operator.

“In my case study, the HoloLens 2 AR smart glasses cost about the same as a worker costs for one week. And these glasses can be used by many operators in the future, which saves the company quite a lot money,” says Martina.

Industry just at the start of their digital transformation journey

From a wider perspective, is industry in general ready for this technology?

“In some areas for sure. But for now, this technology is quite expensive. Smart glasses like the HoloLens 2 cost about SEK 40,000 and have a battery time of about two hours. But I would say the biggest obstacle is implementation. To be able to use AR smart glasses you need digitalized instructions. So if you have not yet started the digitalization journey then this technology might not be the most natural next step.” concludes Oscar Danielsson.

AR smart glasses evaluation tool

Are your curious to know if your company or workplace is ready to implement AR smart glasses? Use Oscar Danielsson’s evaluation tool to find out. (This page is in Swedish). This is a tool that quickly determines if AR smart glasses could be a cost-effective solution for a specific production case at your company/workplace.

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