The role of VR in tomorrow’s factories

Modern factories are technological marvels — and VR might be the perfect tool to help run and maintain them.
17 September 2018

Can VR make our factories safer? Source: Shutterstock

For the first few years after the debut of virtual reality (VR) headsets, most businesses pegged the technology as a ‘gaming innovation’.

However, over time, VR has gone beyond the realm of entertainment and is making waves in industries such as retail and healthcare.

More recently, the technology has piqued the interest of manufacturers, thanks to interesting and innovative use cases. ‘Whether you want to train new staff on complicated machinery or help them repair specialized equipment in remote facilities, VR can play an enabling role in the development of your factory.

What VR can do for manufacturers

As manufacturers look to modernize their operations, they seek automation and robotics capabilities. However, given the nature of the product, many industries find that some level of human support and skill are still necessary — especially for complex tasks.

This is where VR can provide the biggest benefit to manufacturers.

Using the technology, companies can train their staff to operate, maintain, and repair complicated machinery. VR simulations, run as practice sessions, can help operators improve their skills, ensuring new-age automated factories have zero downtime.

At GE, for example, VR is used to help cut down the time and resources required to train electrical grid maintenance staff significantly.

Teaching an operator how to replace a high-voltage circuit breaker, GE said, usually involves a lot of paper manuals and weeklong practice runs at a substation training center. Further, a team of about six people is required to operate the crane for the task.

With VR, it takes just 20 minutes to practice this task, using a headset and a computer monitor. Trainees can repeat the task over and over until it’s perfect, at no additional charge.

And while training might be an immediate area to leverage VR, the technology can, in the future, allow manufacturers to transform their factories completely.

Imagine a facility where there are thousands of efficient bots, producing a million units of a product every day. Although no humans are visible at the automated factory, there can be an army of specialists running the operations every day — personally — using VR.

Just last year, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) created a product that enabled VR-powered operators to control robotic manufacturing devices remotely. Although the test subject and the specimen, in this case, were in the same room, they could, in reality, be thousands of miles apart.

The potential of this technology is great. Here are some ideas about how VR-powered control of bots can help manufacturers:

# 1 | Control

Using this technology, factory operators can simply work from home. VR not only makes manufacturing quite comfortable, but also significantly reduces health and safety hazards for workers.

Further, VR could also be used to ‘upgrade’ manual labor into white collar jobs, enabling staff to work from within the office.

With factory jobs being significantly reduced in the future, controlling robots in remote factories via VR to monitor and manage production is a good option.

# 2 | Maintenance

While manufacturers are busy building new-age factories, they’re already complaining about the lack of talent to maintain these highly efficient operational units.

To compound the problem, many manufacturers are building production units closer to where the demand is, which unfortunately means, access to the right talent (to maintain and repair factories) is further reduced.

However, VR can make it possible for technicians to log in remotely and fix errors or assist on-premise staff with troubleshooting efforts.

# 3 | Talent

The world is talking about the lack of talent when it comes to technology.

Tomorrow’s factories will be built on technology — and hence, running and maintaining them will require several specialists who understanding different kinds of technology.

VR can help manufacturers gain access to talent and share talent in new and innovative ways, while maximizing their time.