Trend Report: Virtual Reality The Virtual Future of the Process Industry

Editor: Alexander Stark

Most are still pilot applications, but they work surprisingly well. Enough to show that Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality have enormous potential. Gamers were the pioneers. Marketing professionals were the ground breakers in the world of industry. Plant technicians and service technicians have now become the user group. But when will more suitable glasses be available?

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The computer game industry is driving VR and AR technology.
The computer game industry is driving VR and AR technology.
(Source: Pixabay / CC0 )

Frankfurt/Germany — Augmented Reality can provide ongoing support for inspection rounds. Also when problems arise, persons with specialist knowledge who may be very far away can have a virtual presence at the scene of the action to provide assistance without delay. Suitable hardware tools for explosion protection zones are still few and far between, but they do exist. Users, component suppliers and systems manufacturers join forces to develop functional applications. Virtual reality is a useful asset for training as well.

In the not too distant future, members of the service team will put on their augmented reality glasses in the morning. At lunch time in the cafeteria, someone will remind them that they are still wearing the glasses. This at any rate is what Arne Sanwald, a young software developer at packaging machinery manufacturer Optima, expects will happen. He skillfully "operates" his AR glasses which are still quite bulky. By clicking two fingers in the air, he calls up an image which is not visible to the person he is talking with and enters voice commands. Besides his own experience with initial augmented reality (AR) applications, reactions by customers have convinced Michael Wratschko, Sanwald's boss and Team Leader at Optima Nonwovens, that they are on the right track. "Initially, we concentrated on mixed reality applications for tablets," he recalls. But according to him an adaptation for the AR glasses generated a lot of interest. His company has already started to introduce a mixed reality service application based on the Holo Lens at one of our largest customers.

Some machinery and systems manufacturers in the process industry and their customers have discovered the potential of virtual reality (VR) for training applications. However, there is one hurdle for AR which the glasses must overcome if they are to become a useful service tool for many applications in the process industry. Versions with explosion protection and the necessary approvals are still extremely expensive. The computer game industry is driving technology, but in this case no help can be expected from that quarter.

Augmented "Maintenance Technician Reality"

Until suitable, affordable glasses are available, the maintenance team must rely on industrial tablets and smartphones which are certified for explosion protection zones and already offer substantial support as a "reality enhancement". One of the pioneers is Pepperl+Fuchs. The company recently re-launched its Ecom brand Tab-Ex tablet line (based on the Samsung Galaxa Tab Active 2). Christopher Limbrunner, AR expert at Ecom, realizes that AR solutions are still at the pilot stage at most companies in the process industry. However a lot of man power is being invested to drive the technology forward. Augmented reality applications, which run on tablets or smartphones and call up all of the pertinent data and documents as soon as the devices are pointed at an object such as a pump or fill level gauge, are already in use. Operating and production data is overlaid on the camera image in real time, displaying all of the key information about the equipment on a mobile end-user device. Setting field device parameters using an AR application is not yet possible, but wireless reliability will play a major role, particularly with process-critical objects.

Rotating Equipment Expertise Without the Wait

So it is hardly surprising that suppliers of equipment and components for process systems are working intensively on AR. In particular the availability of rotating equipment, which causes problems for maintenance teams due to heavy mechanical stress, could be enhanced through the use of augmented reality applications in combination with predictive maintenance. Pump manufacturer KSB is one of the pioneers. AR expert Enno Manske, who works in Service Product Management at KSB, has confidence in the technology. "Augmented reality has huge potential, both for us and for our customers and partners." His own service team and the users are highly impressed with the AR glasses. Manske believes that there are many advantages which KSB would not be able to offer to its customers without augmented reality. He expects to see major leaps forward in this new technology. The KSB vision is to make the knowledge of their top experts available to customers around the world with no waiting time.

AR applications will have huge benefits for site and plant service teams working in remote areas where stoppages can be very costly. Many chemical and pharmaceutical process plants are in operation around the world. Some are aging, others are still under construction. With the aid of AR glasses, outfitters and systems manufacturers can support the on-site installation team and also assist maintenance teams when they carry out repairs or troubleshoot faults. Whether they are working in Malaysia or Milwaukee, field technicians get expertise delivered right to the doorstep.

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