Reality maintenance is coming: Augmented reality that is

Smart glasses or helmets are part of the augmented reality revolution. Photo source: SKF

Mark Willliamson
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Some companies have latched on to this visualization technology to make at-the-scene maintenance more time-effective and sure. Integration with the Industrial Internet (IoT) is essential to achieve it's full value potential.

"Imagine that an engineer sitting in Gothenburg, Sweden can conduct a bearing condition check at a paper mill in Johannesburg, South Africa without leaving her desk. All that's needed is for the local machine operator or maintenance engineer in Johannesburg to put on a pair of augmented reality glasses, connect via Skype and simply walk through the machine hall. The engineer in Gothenburg sees exactly what the mill person sees – in real-time. Live bearing performance data, overlaid on the real-life image that both the operator and engineer see, shows a lubrication adjustment needs to be made to avoid an unplanned and costly failure. The engineer in Gothenburg overlays instructions via the mill person's glasses – talking him through every step." That's the future of maintenance, according to Sweden's SKF bearing manufacturer in a recent LinkedIn post.

This scenario is not far-fetched, as SKF is already developing use of this augmented or mixed reality technology, by using hardware such as the Microsoft Hololens. It might sound like something that's years and years away from being reality. But it's not; it's just around the corner, says SKF.

Around the corner

Other companies are promoting this around-the-corner positioning for augmented reality (AR), which may become a new reality for pulp and paper mill maintenance departments. For instance, in a 2015 article in Paper 360 Magazine, Valmet's Mika Karaila says that the technology means on-the-spot visualization and solution of just-beginning maintenance problems. Measurement data, either raw or analyzed in the cloud, can be overlaid on a lens or face screen to supplement or augment the maintenance worker's normal field of view. A maintenance history of that specific component appears on the screen or glass lens and an in-situ diagnostics test, thermal image or vibration analysis from wireless sensors can be initiated. If trouble is noticed by a cloud-computing analysis, more detailed device-specific information, a repair manual or a supplier help center could be accessed. This is all done hands free without having to go back to a control room or maintenance shop.

Maintenance diagnostics are moving from the control room to the production floor. Photo sources: Valmet (left) and DAQRI (right)

Front end user interface

The front-end human machine interfaces (HMIs) for these AR applications already exist and are being promoted to application developers. Microsoft's Hololens and DAQRI's Smart Helmet or Smart Glasses are examples. Within the last year, Paper Advance reported on the development of these new technologies. To their credit, the positioning of these products in industrial applications avoids the common connection to virtual reality and associated awe-inspiring personal journeys in a closed environment. The AR products are meant to be used in an industrial setting with real-time situations and live data from the process. And, the environment is anything but closed. It's wide open for application developers to display their data.

For instance, DAQRI has just revealed maintenance-focused heat map applications in a recent LinkedIn post. Heat sensors in the smart helmet or glasses overlay a temperature profile map of what the user is looking at, warning of dangerous hot spots, hot bearings approaching failure or faulty electrical connections.

A temperature profile map in front of a person's eyes warns of dangerous hot spots, hot bearings approaching failure, or faulty electrical connections. Source: DAQRI

DAQRI also touts the value of data visualization of process or mechanical condition, detailed explanations of how to install something or fix a problem, and online expert connections. The connection to a product expert thousands of kilometers away can help to solve a problem quickly and effectively and avoid process downtime.

The connection using AR to a product expert thousands of kilometers away can help to solve a mill problem quickly and effectively. Source: DAQRI

Industrial Internet indispensible part

The HMI for augmented reality is coming along nicely and enhancements will no doubt appear in the future. Right now the cost for widespread use is a bit daunting at several thousands of dollars per unit, but that should come down considerably, like many hi-tech products after volumes increases.

However, the user interface will realize its full value as the applications for real time process and mechanical condition data continue to develop. That will be the result of the implementation of Industrial Internet (IoT) technology which is being developed by a number of industry suppliers as we speak. IoT is an indispensible part of augmented reality.

Remote data analysis and expert advisory services are not new, as suppliers have used them for some years to diagnose mill problems and make corrective recommendations. However, continuous online connections, the use of cloud computing and the new augmented reality interface make these services real-time and very floor-level. With the integration of smart process measurements with IoT capability, wireless transmitters, cloud computing analytics and remote expert services the HMI will be complete, and a very valuable maintenance tool for the future. Some of those, like SKF's vision, are on the way. The terms just around the corner, coming soon, or Honeywell's "IoT ready" are common and appropriate these days, since there is some substance behind them. The enabling technology is there and the related customer service programs are strong planks in many companies' product development and marketing programs.

Judging by the activities of numerous pulp and paper suppliers, the implementation will come sooner rather than later. I remember in the late 1980s I was a reluctant convert to PCs with the new Windows HMI. A colleague of mine said, "Try it; it will change your life." It certainly did, and there is no turning back for me or the rest of the world. The adoption of AR in pulp and paper mills will take less time.

The industrial Internet or internet of things (IoT) brings together remote data acquisition, cloud analytics and expert services. The augmented reality interface is a display medium for these services. Source: Honeywell.