Trend Report: Virtual Reality

The Virtual Future of the Process Industry

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Standardized Installation Procedures Automated on a Heads-Up Display

Some of the large systems suppliers are already virtual support users, and they also offer it as a service. One example of a company, which is exploring the opportunities created by VR and AR and the application of these technologies with a passion, is Linde Engineering. Julien Brunel, Head of digitalization at this division, provided an insight into what is going on: Using the built-in camera, smart glasses transmit the employee's field of vision to the expert's display. Via the headset, camera and heads-up display, the expert issues specific instructions and provides documentation such as circuit diagrams. Linde uses this during systems production and also during maintenance. In addition, standardized work sequences can be communicated automatically without the need for an expert. Brunel says that in the future, this type of automation will play an increasingly important role. "Assembly drawings will no longer be needed. The glasses provide instructions to the technician."

Virtual support also has a welcome side effect. The specialists, who are few and far between, no longer spend most of their time on long-haul flights on the way to distant destinations. Instead they share their knowledge from a central support base. This increases their availability. However the market for AR maintenance applications is by no means limited to exotic countries. Operating staff shortages are increasingly becoming a fact of life in Germany, particularly as the current generation hands over responsibility to the next, and there is a real risk that invaluable knowledge and experience will be lost.

Site service provider Infraserv Höchst, for example, is already testing two AR/smart glasses in a wide range of application scenarios. "The employees have been very open-minded," reported Ralph Urban, Head of IT Maintenance and Facilities. The tests spawned new ideas for possible future fields of application. Employees, who know the methodologies from their own private experience, were literally waiting for the opportunity to use the power of digitalization in their work environment. Just the hardware by itself would of course be useless. Infraserv Hoechst is one of the users in the chemical services industry which invests in software application development. In partnership with the academic sector and as part of the Master's thesis program, an application for the smart glasses was developed for digital documentation of maintenance activity and inspection rounds which allows users to keep their hands free.

According to Urban, the suitability of VR glasses which restrict the field of vision is limited due to safety regulations. An unobstructed view and protective goggles were mandatory. Among the mixed reality methods which he regards as relevant are on-the-spot detection of faults and the need to take action with the aid of bar and QR codes. He expects to see integrated acquisition of measurement data in a future stage of development. In maintenance services, Urban envisages closer collaboration with the customers. Here he is breaking new ground, and he chooses his words carefully. Using an online communications link between the customer and the maintenance service provider, it might be possible to deliver live instructions to the customer on how to perform important maintenance and repair activities and agree on specific action to take, said Urban.