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16 February 2018

Siemens, Honeywell, launch Industrial AR tech, brace for big 2018

The technology has a lot of doubters, but Augmented Reality (AR) has found a niche in hands-free industrial applications, as a means of augmenting the capabilities of technicians and assembly line workers. This week, AR-vendor Daqri announced a product win with Siemens, and Honeywell has unveiled a Microsoft-powered staff training system that it hopes to address a growing skills gap in the industrial sector.

Siemens has been working with Daqri since 2016, where a proof-of-concept test saw engineers using a Daqri AR helmet to more efficiently assemble a gas turbine. In that test, Siemens said that a first-timer was able to build a gas burner in around 45-minuites. Typically, that competency would be reached followed a day of classroom learning. If this sort of gain is typical, then AR isn’t just promising small efficiency gains that could boost a bottom line – it is promising gains on other orders of magnitude.

Honeywell’s Connected Plant wing has launched the Skills Insight Immersive Competency (SIIC) tool, designed to let plant personnel train on critical infrastructure without the risk of breaking something important. The cloud-based tool allows a trainee, wearing a Microsoft HoloLens headset, to experiment and follow on-screen instructions.

Honeywell is pitching this as a vital tool for industrial customers, claiming that as much as half their plant workforces are due to retire within the next five years. As such, Honeywell’s SIIC has been designed to help reduce the training times needed to bring new workers up to speed with systems based on Honeywell’s lines of industrial controllers and computers, such as the C300.

“Megatrends such as the aging workforce are putting increased pressure on industrial companies and their training programs,” said Youssef Mestari, program director, at Honeywell Connected Plant. “There is a need for more creative and effective training delivered through contemporary methods such as Immersive Competency, ultimately empowering industrial workers to directly improve plant performance, uptime, reliability and safety.”

The software could also help influence the design process for new products too. Because of the AR-based environment, the likes of Honeywell can monitor precisely how a person reacts to new environments. This could lead to simple ergonomic improvements, such as grouping related controls or objects into close proximity to speed up actions, but also design changes that might help avoid the next Hawaii early-warning missile alert mishap.

Simulation is another big part of the training experience, with Honeywell likening it to a flight simulator, where trainees ‘can safely experience the impacts of their decisions,’ and hopefully learn a few painful but memorable lessons in the process. Using the SIIC, you can see how your trainees respond to primary failures, switchovers, and cable and power supply failures.

Honeywell says this improves skill retention by around 100% compared to traditional training methods, leading to a 150% reduction in the length of required technical training. What’s more, the trainee’s progress can be tracked, as part of a certification or formal competency system.

Microsoft seems pretty happy about the launch. “Honeywell’s unique approach to industrial training and competency development, combined with Windows Mixed Reality platform and devices, is a good example of a major industrial player proactively and creatively driving digital transformation,” said Lorraine Bardeen, general manager for Mixed Reality at Microsoft. “This is the first solution that directly links industrial staff competency to plant performance by measuring the training’s effectiveness based on real outcomes.”

For Microsoft, it still seems that the company isn’t pushing HoloLens as a standalone product. Rather, it wants to provide the cloud and software platforms that support devices based on the HoloLens designs, perhaps enjoying some hardware licensing revenues too. With Honeywell, this kind of deployment drives revenue for its Azure cloud business, which also opens the door for Microsoft to sell more software and services to industrial customers looking to expand.

But Microsoft is not the only company in the business of selling AR hardware. Daqri made a name for itself selling a vision of the future of construction helmets – filled with sensors and screens to help make workers more efficient. Now onto its second generation of products, with another more conventional smart glasses form factor, Daqri has also recently announced that it is using Intel’s sixth-gen Core m7 CPU and RealSense computer vision tech in the newest Smart Helmet.

The Siemens deal, however, centers around a gas power plant being built in Toul, France. Celest Power, the fourth-largest French electricity producer, has commissioned Siemens to build and operate the new plant, housing the latest technologies for digital power plants and factories.

Part of this will see operational workers equipped with the Daqri helmets, both for on-site training, and then as part of their work duties. A promotional video shows how the mobile workers can be pushed information about parts or tasks, with one demo walking a worker through a new process with the help of a remote trainer – on hand to provide guidance where needed. They even have access to thermal imaging, through the helmet.

Much like Honeywell’s C300, the Siemens SPPA-T3000 Control System is an industrial computer that is being deployed to manage processes within the power plant. Siemens has integrated the Daqri systems with the controllers themselves, so that relevant information can pop up in the screens, but also with the back-end services that let a worker call a support center or management office to get new orders or help with a task – which they can then perform while still on the line with the center, hands-free.

It sounds like a small benefit, and perhaps one that could feasibly be done with a smartphone and a Bluetooth headset, but there is a great deal of interest from industrial service providers and manufacturers in these sorts of AR technologies. PTC went as far as buying Qualcomm’s Vuforia wing to further its own AR goal, and Riot covered its latest Microsoft win recently. For enterprises or industrialists, small worker efficiency improvements can add up to very noticeable improvements in productivity and revenues.