For US manufacturers, virtual reality is for real

By Robert McCutcheon, Partner, US Industrial Products Leader; and Gardner Carrick, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, Manufacturing Institute

We’ve been hearing a lot about virtual reality of late. As virtual reality continues to take center stage, established tech and non-tech players and start-ups continue to invest in the space at great speed. This activity, unsurprisingly, is yielding a new generation of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) devices and software.

The distinction between the two, in a nutshell, is this: VR, typically requiring headsets, creates a fully immersive virtual experience, while AR is a quasi-virtual experience in which a layer of data, images, and communications augments the actual world, most conveniently produced with smartglasses. If the technology catches on, as many believe it will, millions of us will be crossing into new realities soon. Combined VR and AR sales are forecast to hit $150 billion by 2020, according to one estimate – with AR alone comprising about $120 billion.[1]

While the jury is still out on the timing of the technology’s mainstreaming, we’re seeing traction in surprising quarters far from the couches of video gamers – on America’s factory floors.

How are they using it? Pretty much any way they can. And that’s what’s interesting. According to an upcoming PwC survey of US manufacturers, the most popular application of VR and AR was product design and developments (38%), followed by safety and manufacturing skills training (28%), maintenance, repair or equipment operations (19%) and remote collaboration (19%). [Note that respondents could choose multiple answers.]

The next (hands-free) manufacturing tool. What we’re seeing is VR/AR as an advanced manufacturing technology tool – just like robotics, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things. And they’re applying it in innovative ways. Consider a few:

  • Materials handing: Warehouse workers using smartglasses which read barcodes on containers of supplies inventory boxes and provide content details and destination/origin information.
  • Remote maintenance: Field technicians relaying a live image of a part that needs to be fixed to a remote colleague who supplies relevant data, instructions, or images that could serve as a “live virtual repair manual.”
  • Augmented assembly: Assembly workers using smartglasses to help track complicated assembly processes to ensure all parts are assembled in the right place and sequence, removing downtime of consulting a clipboard, manual, or tablet.
  • Improved inspection: Parts inspectors taking a photo of a part that needs to be modified – or also adding a spoken record of the issue – and relaying those data to the appropriate co-worker in seconds.

About one in three manufacturers could adopt VR/AR technology by 2018. In an upcoming PwC survey, we uncovered that an impressive adoption of VR and AR technology is already afoot, with about one-third of manufacturers already using or planning in the next three years to adopt VR and AR technologies. Of course, adoption could run the gamut – from experiments or trialing the technology, to more ubiquitous or more widespread use among workers for whom it makes sense.

Saving time…minute by minute. AR not only gets things done faster and better – but easier, mainly because the technology frees the hands and accesses data with the tilt of the head, a spoken command or a simple touch – instead of stopping work and consulting a tablet, for example. Saving a minute or two here or there may seem like tiny productivity advancements, but it certainly adds up when an organization has thousands of workers carrying out, say, hundreds of routines daily.

Indeed, manufacturers are embracing AR/VR as new paths to boost both productivity and product quality – and expect to hear a lot more about its adoption on our factory floors as we wade into 2016.

[1] “Report: Virtual Reality rules now, but augmented reality will soon take over,” Nov. 4, 2015.

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