Even though it’s still in its early days, augmented reality (AR) promises to bring about a sea change across industries, where the immersive technology can be applied to streamline workflows, enhance product quality and even make the workforce smarter and safer.

Consider shipbuilding, an extremely complex business involving highly specialised systems that need to be inspected and maintained before, during and after delivery. All too often, shipyards rely on time-consuming, manual tasks that can introduce errors, safety risks and inefficiencies. But with specially designed headsets that can be controlled with gestures, eye movements and voice commands, workers are untethered and able to work relatively hands-free.

With such a rich, immersive experience, AR can improve the quality, safety, delivery times and overall performance of a ship:

  • Safety: Worker fatigue is a common cause of on-the-job injuries. With an AR system, a supervisor could walk about the shipyard and use an AR headset to access information about a specific worker, such as the last time he or she took a break, and how many hours that person has already worked that day or that week. The information would come from a human resources (HR) system and could be accessed from a bar code located on the worker’s clothing. By correlating this data with a determination of how hazardous or dangerous the environment or task might be, the system could provide the supervisor with a “fatigue index” for that worker and display this information on the supervisor’s headset screen.
  • Quality: Typically, quality inspections are done using pens, notepads and cameras, with that data transmitted back to a central server for processing. This process can be speeded up and made more efficient by having engineers use AR headsets equipped with cameras to conduct a quality assurance (QA) inspection entirely on site.
  • Proactive maintenance and support: By linking the AR headset to internet of things (IoT) data collected from manufacturing equipment, a maintenance worker can walk through the shipbuilding facility and receive alerts on the status of motors and other devices, or even receive a display containing instructions on how to mitigate a problem.
  • Digital design: Many companies already use digital twin technology to create design simulations. By layering on AR, companies can move the design process from a PC to a headset, allowing the engineer to “see” the effects of a design change in a whole new way.
  • Employee training: The process of getting new employees up to speed can be improved through training based on AR simulations. Research has shown that employees are more engaged when learning in an AR-based environment.

Shipbuilding is one area where AR can have a profound effect, but the technology can also be applied across the broad spectrum of manufacturing. For example, Airbus has been using AR in its manufacturing facilities. And Boeing has been using AR headsets to assist with wire harnessing on its aircraft. Instead of operators looking at a massive PDF document with harnessing schemes on a computer screen, they now have the virtual instructions immediately in sight. Boeing reported that the AR system has cut production times by one-fourth and cut error rates by half.

Immersive technologies such as AR are starting to capture the imagination of enterprises. In a report by the Capgemini Research Institute, half of the more than 700 executives in the automotive, manufacturing and utilities companies surveyed said they are considering AR and virtual reality (VR) for use in their operations. And 82 percent who are currently implementing AR and VR said the benefits are either meeting or exceeding expectations.

While AR is a highly complex capability that is still in its infancy, if you apply it well and keep the uses simple, it can be immensely powerful.