Augmented reality: efficient access to engineering expertise

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During the last few years, virtual reality technologies have taken global consumer markets by storm. However, their industrial use has been limited, mainly because they only enable the user access to a digital model, without taking actual surroundings into account. But with the advent of augmented, or mixed reality devices, the game is changing, especially for industrial end-users.

Augmented reality: efficient access to engineering expertiseProgrammers at SKF’s software development center in Gothenburg, Sweden, are working hand-in-hand with application engineers and product specialists to develop mixed reality products that make SKF’s engineering competence more accessible and efficient.

Fredrik Magnusson, Head of SKF’s software development centre, explains the team’s ambitions: “Imagine having access to an SKF application engineer or service technician on-demand, in real-time. If you are in a paper or steel mill close to an SKF Solution Factory, that’s not a problem. But the majority of our customers are based in remote locations. Our goal is to give them the same – or even better – access to our expertise, on-demand.”

One challenge for companies like SKF is the market’s perception of their competence and role in developing new, digital technologies.

Fredrik Magnusson says: “SKF has been at the heart of rotating equipment performance since 1907. We were one of the first companies to industrialise and develop condition monitoring solutions and we have also been leading the development of sensorised bearings. For us, developing augmented reality solutions is a natural next step in our digital journey. However, many of our development partners saw us as a traditional “steel and grease” bearing company. Positioning ourselves as a software development company, as well, was a key challenge for us to overcome.”

Giving customers engineering access at their fingertips

Irrespective of the proactive maintenance steps they take, industrial end-users still have a need for access to application engineers – either on a planned or more urgent basis. Providing the man-power for this is a growing challenge, not least with travelling between locations taking up much of an engineer’s time. Augmented reality options remove this inefficiency almost completely, allowing engineers to spend more time directly supporting customers.

Fredrik Magnusson explains: “With augmented reality, the environment you see before you is combined with a digital model that overlays technical data, instructions and real-time machine performance. When your head moves to the left, to look at a different part of the machine, so the digital overlay also adjusts – showing you the data you need to take informed decisions and corrective action. At the same time, it also shares what you see with SKF’s engineer, based at a remote location. Together, they can take decisions that will help avoid unplanned and costly failures.

“Imagine the possibilities that this creates – for customers and for us. Instead of spending time travelling between sites, an engineer can be accessible and share her knowledge and expertise with exponentially more customers than before, without leaving the office. All that’s needed are a few pieces of relatively standardised hardware, internally developed software and a solid Wi-Fi connection on-site.”

Simply using augmented reality systems on their own will not be enough to create significant value – either for customers or for service providers. The real value lies in combining the possibilities of hardware such as Microsoft’s Hololens with other machine health systems, condition monitoring, automated lubrication systems, sensorised bearings and cloud-based analytics such as SKF’s recently launched Enlight Center.

Fredrik Magnusson concludes: “In many ways, augmented reality tools are an enabler. For our customers, they enable access to large amounts of data, in an aggregated form, that allows for smarter and quicker decision making. For SKF, they enable a closer, more efficient working relationship with our customers, as well as an ability to do more with the data generated by our bearings.”

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