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.

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.

Stable Internet and Excellent Data Infrastructure Are Indispensable

Before applications of this type can become mainstream, there are a number of hurdles which suppliers and users must overcome. The availability of system integration for smart glasses (e.g. ERP software) is currently limited, says Urban. KSB expert Manske emphasizes that none of this works without a fast, stable local Internet connection. Excellent data infrastructure and accessibility are absolutely vital. Julien Brunel from Linde knows that this is not always the case.

The lack of infrastructure at brownfield sites could be an insurmountable obstacle. Yet operators of these plants have a particular interest in support which can help them bring availability, reliability and safety up to an acceptable level. The initial modernization steps should include state-of-the-art markings and wireless solutions. Stephan Sagebiel, process expert at Phoenix Contact, is convinced that a lot can be done simply by using funds which are already available in the standard maintenance budget. The company, which offers marking and wireless solutions along with automation system components, also provides advice on how to make aging equipment fit for the future. Sagebiel is sure of one thing: "For anyone with a high-performance, full-coverage Wifi and the capability to carry out paper-less control rounds, the next step towards introduction of augmented reality is not far away. Combining this with predictive maintenance provides the basis for outstanding solutions.

Pharmaceutical Packagers Act as VR Training Pioneers

Users of packaging systems, for example in the pharmaceutical industry, are among the process industry pioneers in the use of virtual reality as a training aid. The dynamism of machinery and system suppliers makes this possible. Along with the Optima Group mentioned above, Uhlmann and Bausch+Ströbel are among the companies which offer a broad range of services in addition to their complex filling and packaging lines. AR technology at these companies is still in the development and pilot phase, but VR applications have al-ready reached an advanced stage. Virtual reality based on Powerwalls has been in use for years in engineering and training, reported Tobias Hörner who works as System Product Creation and Application Team Leader in the IT organization at Bausch+Ströbel. Alexander Herrmann, Training Manager at Optima Pharma, pointed out that the existence of a Powerwall is not the end of the story. As with any other form of training, content development is crucial. Also, two hours is generally the limit for wearing 3D glasses. However Herrmann confirms what his competitors are saying: The addition of VR technology creates great possibilities, particularly in cleanroom applications. Instructors cannot bring employees into the cleanroom simply for training purposes.

VR training is a key element of the digitalization strategy at Uhlmann as well. To avoid travel time and expense to train the customer's production employees, the pharmaceutical equipment manufacturer has introduced a virtual training system with VR glasses and controller. In the pilot application, the user is guided through a changeover with the aid of optical instructions.

Immersion into the World of Large Systems on a 3D Display

Large equipment manufacturers such as Linde also use VR as an enhancement to conven-tional operator training. The primary goal is to give future operators the opportunity long before system commissioning to familiarize themselves with their equipment in a safe en-vironment where they can make mistakes without the fear of serious consequences. Some-times more than 100 or more operators and technicians are involved. "Immersion into this world is possible anytime from anywhere in the world, even by more than one person," stressed Brunel. Essentially all that is necessary is VR glasses with a 3D display, two controllers and a high-performance computer. The equipment is so simple to operate that even a layman can go on a tour in the virtual system. In the future, technicians will have the opportunity to move around alongside a digital twin in the system and initiate actions directly in the virtual world, predicts Brunel. This is not all that the technology has to offer for training. Virtual technology could also support instruction at the physical system. Mixed reality could help familiarize new operators with an existing system, for example.

So systems and equipment manufacturers are one step ahead in their ability to offer VR training tools. That is hardly surprising given the fact that few standard digital learning solutions are available which meet the needs of industrial producers. The "industrial specialist developer" Provadis, a subsidiary of Infraserv Höchst which focuses on the chemical, pharmaceutical and biotech industries creates tailored solutions. The toolbox includes system training with a virtual tour on the display in the control room. "Provadis takes a very practical approach. The virtual production system in a PC, tablet or VR glasses makes solutions available where they are actually needed," claimed Ralph Urban. More is involved than simply practicing specific procedures. The goal is understanding, for example why the pressure at a certain point must not exceed a particular level. According to Urban, that type of information was incorporated into the process in the virtual machine or system and it would be highly relevant in the specific context.

Immersive Training Simulation from the Start-Up Community

Another group of suppliers is well positioned to deliver a mix of individuality and digitalization, namely start-ups such as Viscopic which is based in Munich. The three founders were particularly interested in immersive training simulation based on mixed reality, where users plunge deeply into the virtual environment. DB Netz AG was the customer on the first major project. Technicians can now study and explore a railroad track switch in a virtual world. One year after foundation, the start-up can now stand on its own feet financially. Young and creative entrepreneurs could give the process-oriented e-learning community, which includes highly specialized developers as well as equipment and system manufacturers, a real boost – one more reason to put a special focus on this striving scene.