As new technologies, like augmented reality (AR), create increasingly interconnected relationships between people, products, machines, and systems, there is an increasing demand for engineering managers who can leverage these technologies to create innovative solutions. To successfully gain value from Industry 4.0 technologies such as AR, organizations need engineering leaders and managers who are ready to embrace and utilize these advancements to boost productivity and drive growth.
AR leads to better spatial intelligence. One of the most exciting benefits of augmented reality is that engineers, engineering managers, and business professionals can all work on an agile product team and have similar spatial intelligence because of AR technology. Spatial Intelligence involves humans having the ability to make accurate conclusions by observing a three-dimensional environment. Many professionals (e.g., engineers, artists, surgeons, etc.) are believed to have spatial intelligence as a ‘gift’ while others struggle to draw accurate conclusions about 3D space. For example, before a physical prototype exists, oftentimes engineering designers have to explain their 2D or 3D designs to decision makers who do not have spatial intelligence and therefore struggle to see their vision. Sitting in a conference room (or a home office) with AR glasses on, a virtual 3D prototype can be set on the table by users and manipulated to see all sides of the 3D geometry. This ensures that the entire team acquires spatial intelligence in order to make the vision a reality.
AR integrates digital information with physical assets to improve productivity. Using AR, engineers and developers are able to communicate more effectively with business leaders and technical stakeholders to ensure that product quality issues, potential process disruptions, or consumer challenges are identified and resolved before they disrupt development timelines or impact customer satisfaction. For example, when troubleshooting the malfunctioning operation of an algae bioreactor being used to cultivate algae for biofuels, the engineer could make the computer-aided design (CAD) and instructions manual virtually available as a side-by-side display or an overlaid image atop of the equipment. This could enable a technician to not only make the repair quickly, but to relay back information needed for the timely replacement of components. This would enable business managers to make timely economic projections on the health of the physical assets in the start-up company prior to an imminent meeting with a VC. The engineering manager, who knows how to leverage AR to integrate and expedite equipment repair and financial updates, can give the company unique capabilities that radically improve productivity and innovation.
Read on to learn more about what AR is, how it’s applied in engineering design and throughout the engineering lifecycle, and how industries benefit from integrating AR into their operations.
What is Augmented Reality (AR)?
Augmented reality is an interactive visualization technology that overlays or “augments” real-world physical objects with computer-generated digital elements from the view of the user. The AR user can see how these digital renderings interact with their physical environment, make side-by-side comparisons of digital elements with physical objects, and ultimately, use them to enhance productivity. Similar to the example above, users can visualize manufacturing or maintenance instructions right in their work piece, eliminating the need to stop their work to read instructions from an instruction manual, and more.
Augmented Reality (AR) vs. Virtual Reality (VR)
Augmented reality and virtual reality are often confused, but there are a few key differences. In AR, computer-generated elements are added to a user’s real-world view. On the other hand, virtual reality (VR) replaces what the user would normally see with an immersive, computer-generated simulation.
Consider two engineering examples:
Mechanical Engineering: Mechanical engineers, for example, can use AR to see step-by-step instructions or modeling demonstrations while working on designing or building a product in a physical manufacturing plant. With VR, engineers can perform technical review, simulate, and manipulate products in a virtual environment.
Industrial Engineering: AR enables industrial engineers to create visual representations of designs before prototypes are built. This allows them to reduce potential defects. VR gives industrial engineers an immersive view of 3D models and allows them to see these models from multiple view angles in order to innovate and improve their designs. One example of this is using a digital twin of a geothermal rock drilling process to determine the right size drill bit to use for a particular rock formation. The AR/VR solution allows other technical experts and stakeholders to bring the digital information in the same space with the physical resources to better understand the solution and make sound technical decisions that will enhance the drilling process.
What is an AR Engineer?
AR and VR can be integrated into product lifecycle activities across various engineering disciplines such as electrical, mechanical, industrial, chemical, among others. An AR Engineer will be required to combine core engineering discipline skills, digital skills in AR elements development, and a broad perspective on solutions development and integration.
How Is Augmented Reality Used In Engineering?
Engineers can use AR throughout the product lifecycle. AR can be applied to visualize conceptual designs in appropriate environments, aid product or component assembly, and support maintenance and repair procedures. The ability to instantly reference component specifications or maintenance procedures of a product can significantly enhance productivity and reduce errors in manufacturing or maintenance operations.
Here are a few practical examples of AR/VR at work in engineering:
Computer-aided design (CAD) allows engineers to create 2D conceptual designs and 3D models of the products they’re developing for real-world applications. Engineers in a wide variety of industries utilize CAD throughout the entire design and development process, helping them create, modify, and optimize conceptual designs and manufacturing methods for the product.
With the integration of augmented reality solutions, engineers and designers have opportunities to visualize in actual scale and size — as well as inspect and refine — these designs and models in a live environment. Using AR in CAD, an engineer can present clients with a true visual representation of what a product or part will look like and even allow them to compare various configurations and options to determine which one best meets their needs. The Industry 4.0 engineering leader will have a working understanding of AR and CAD, and will be able to determine how these technologies can improve the performance and business prospects of new products and processes.
2. Training and Practice
The benefits of employing AR in engineering education and training are numerous. AR allows the training process to include visual, auditory, and hands-on elements that can be helpful for trainees with varying learning styles. AR offers trainees visual and/or audible step-by-step instructions in real-time, helping them to visually identify the tools and components they’ll need for their next tasks. AR can make the training process safer because it offers a virtual hands-on experience. With AR-enabled practice, trainees receive alerts about missteps and potential hazards along the way, helping them to avoid these hazards in real-life applications. AR is real-time and, as such, feedback is immediate, and trainees are instantly aware of safety issues that could arise before they happen.
AR solutions also help increase safety in the manufacturing environment. By simulating production processes, augmented reality can identify potentially hazardous situations that need remediation. AR is also used in safety training to simulate situations without endangering the trainee. In addition, 3D instruction via AR-enabled operating manuals can help engineers perform maintenance or corrective actions that help prevent issues.
AR can help engineers implement more efficient workflows in planning, development, and production. In the planning stage, the engineer and the client can determine how a conceptualized system or piece of equipment fits within the space and what modifications might be required before installation by visualizing their system or equipment in the environment where it will be used.
4. Prototypes and Marketing
AR can streamline engineers’ experiences in creating prototypes by allowing them to visualize their conceptual models, step-by-step build instructions, required tools, component connections, and additional resources they may need as they build in a real-world environment. AR can then help the organization to effectively market their prototype by allowing clients to see the prototype in their own environments as well as to compare and analyze various specifications and configurations to determine what version would best meet their needs.
Engineering Industries & Verticals Benefitting From Augmented Reality
AR can significantly improve efficiency, safety, and client satisfaction across a wide variety of industries. AR offers many real-time, real-world applications that create opportunities for greater innovation and customization.
Here are some examples of industries benefiting from AR today:
- Civil and Environmental: Using AR, civil and environmental engineers can visualize infrastructure elements or environmental interventions in their intended environments to realistically gauge their fit and functionality. Virtual reality and augmented reality in civil engineering can enable professionals to easily share project models and designs across teams using 3D modeling software.
- Chemical: AR/VR helps train employees in the chemical industry to handle hazardous chemicals in both virtual and operational settings. AR helps engineers assemble complex machinery and make guided repairs.
- Energy: Technicians in the energy industry can repair equipment safely and efficiently when using AR to visualize equipment models, instruction manuals, maintenance history, and more as they work.
- Industrial: Industrial engineers can use AR to plan and optimize manufacturing processes or guide repairs and modifications being made on another site through audio and visual instructions.
- Mechanical: When mechanical engineers are inspecting a piece of equipment, AR can help them identify missing or damaged components and develop a solution. Industry 4.0 has brought together minds, machines, and models, with data as the lifeblood that connects them. In mechanical engineering, machines will produce data and engineers can use algorithms to interpret all of that data and optimize how the machines in your smart factory are working together.
- Petroleum: AR can help technicians visualize and detect problems with machinery, or detect oil fields. AR can also provide directions for a safe employee exit in the case of an emergency. The example of the digital twin above can help technicians to use AR and virtual simulation to find the perfect drill bit to use when drilling oil. Simulating the process in a virtual environment helps to streamline processes and eliminate user error.
- Medical/Biomedical: A biomedical engineer might use an AR tool that integrates 3D medical images while they are working on the physical design of an implantable device to see how it might be optimized in size, fit, and function. In the future, it might overlay the image of an organ on the patient when a doctor is unable to see the organ in the physical space.
- Space/Aviation: NASA uses AR to make people on the ground aware of the operations of vehicles, like drones, that increasingly populate the skies. This could have useful applications for emergency response, managing air traffic, or local governance.
Learn More About AR in Engineering and Industry 4.0 From MEML@Rice
The Master of Engineering Management & Leadership (MEML) degree program is designed to help engineers achieve their potential as Industry 4.0 leaders. The degree program equips graduates with technical engineering knowledge for emerging technologies like AR, and provides training and experience to help students develop business and leadership skills.Ready to learn more about how AR can help you prepare for a successful Industry 4.0 engineering career? Connect with a Rice Enrollment Coach to learn more.