22 July, 2024

Mixed reality technologies open new vistas for maintenance technicians

22 August, 2017

Setting aside its more familiar applications in gaming and consumer attractions, virtual reality has become a vital resource for the design engineer as it provides valuable insights into the 3D virtual design model, iteration by iteration, ahead of any investment in the physical prototype.

Augmented – and its more complex complementary technology, mixed reality – on the other hand, are digital tools that provide views of real-world objects overlain with pertinent information, and therefore have greater relevance to application engineers and maintenance technicians.

Augmented reality adds 2D or 3D layered content on top of real world objects or locations, allowing the user to access relevant information about that object or location. Mixed reality goes further, combining sensors, advanced optics, audio and powerful computing that enable relevant digital content to be instantaneously and automatically assigned to the location or object being viewed, as well as providing an interactive environment for the user and a communications channel between that user and a remotely located colleague.

Recognising the value of these tools to onsite commissioning and maintenance operatives, programmers at SKF’s software development centre in Gothenburg, Sweden, have been working with application engineers and product specialists to develop mixed reality solutions that make SKF’s engineering competence more widely available, and particularly to those working in remote locations who would otherwise have limited access to these resources.

Industrial end-users occasionally need access to the specialist knowledge of application engineers. Providing the man-power for this is a growing challenge, not least with travelling between locations taking up much of an engineer’s time. Augmented reality solutions avoid wasted travel time and allow engineers to focus on customers’ onsite problems via the internet instead.

More informed decisions

Ian Peverill, head of service at SKF explains how it works: “With augmented reality, the environment you see before you is combined with a digital model that overlays technical data, instructions and real-time machine performance. When your head moves to the left, to look at a different part of the machine, so the digital overlay also adjusts – showing you the data you need to take informed decisions and corrective action. At the same time, it also shares what you see with a remotely located engineer, enabling more informed decisions to be taken. All that’s needed are a few pieces of relatively standard hardware, our in-house developed software and a stable Wi-Fi connection on-site.”

The real value of augmented or mixed reality for the maintenance technician lies in combining the functionality of hardware such as Microsoft’s Hololens with machine health monitoring platforms, automated lubrication systems and cloud-based machine performance analytics systems such as the recently launched SKF Enlight Centre.

Wearing a pair of augmented reality glasses like Microsoft’s Hololens, the commissioning engineer or maintenance technician simply connects their smartphone, tablet or laptop to the internet to set up a link with a remote service expert who is able to view what the engineer or technician is seeing in real time. The expert can interact visually with this, overlaying images or texts on the user’s screen and providing additional spoken instructions that guide the user on what actions need to be taken.

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