Industrial VR is more than a pair of cool glasses.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VR and AR) are best known among consumers for their entertainment qualities. Think, for example, of gaming applications involving VR glasses, or AR apps that allow users to fancify photos or images with an extra layer of information or entertainment. Although these developments are thought only a few years old, the industrial world has been experimenting and working with AR and VR for some 25 years, says UT scientist Roy Damgrave. ‘Of course, that includes cool visualizations viewable with or without VR glasses. The visualization capacities of VR and AR certainly a value adder in the industry.’

AR glasses at a tree nursery

One example is an application of Twinsense 360, an IRH participant, that uses AR glasses to show tree nursery workers the precise height at which they are to place the shelves in a trolley. The height can vary from one individual order to another, and previously, an employee had to manually measure the height by counting holes. With the AR-glasses, he or she can see at a glance where to place the shelf. And when the job is done, the glasses send a signal to the database and the trolley self-drives to the next spot in the process.

The automotive industry uses similar visual applications. In many car factories, for example, paper manuals are a thing of the past, with AR glasses showing mechanics how and where to use which parts and tools for assembling a component. Typically, the display also shows them – and others – how far along they are with their task. Training employees to carry out certain tasks is also increasingly being done with the help of AR and VR.

From visualization to insight

But AR and VR’s most vital strength does not lie in visualization, Damgrave points out. ‘The real impact occurs when we use VR and AR as decision-making tools. In many companies and factories, more and more data are available: information on products and components, processes, devices, costs and people. If you can display the right data in the right context with the right parameters in a single digital model, you no longer have all kinds of conflicting truths, but a single, harmonized truth about how everything works. Subsequently, all the different stakeholders can view the data relevant to them using a virtual dashboard: machines, processes, infrastructure, operations, people, finances – you name it. In the virtual model you can then make changes, such as installing a new machine, redesigning a process, redistributing the manpower. As this is all done in virtual reality, there is no risk whatsoever, and every stakeholder can see in the model exactly what the consequences of a change are for his or her focus area. You don’t have to display all the data in beautiful 3D images either: when it comes to the financial implications of a choice, the model might simply print an Excel sheet. This way, AR and VR become part of a far greater whole: a toolset that makes decision-making faster, more accurate, and more predictive.’

Where to start

The goal of the Industry Reality Hub is, together with its member companies, to develop and realize the many industrial application possibilities of AR and VR technology. Damgrave: ‘Companies that do not have a lot of data available yet have to start collecting data. But many companies already have a lot of information in their systems. Their challenge is to map out these data and use them to create a digital model. That means linking data and disciplines, mapping life cycles, getting stakeholders involved – creating connectivity between all those machines, people and business units. The IRH welcomes companies to come and talk about the challenges and opportunities this presents. The strength is in collaboration.’                                         

The UT’s role

Among the UT’s important contributions to the IRH are the facilities the university offers. The UT’s Virtual Reality & Smart Industry lab (VRSI Lab), for example, is equipped with the latest technologies for visualization, interaction, collaboration and communication. But that is not all, says Damgrave: ‘The UT is a knowledge partner. We are less focused on creating AR or VR tools, and more on the ideas behind it. We know and research the potential; we have an overview of what is necessary for overall solutions in the manufacturing industry. And where knowledge is lacking, we conduct research.’

One example is the UT’s research on the use of AR and VR in the design of complex products and systems. ‘Think about building a new factory: with AR and VR we can show with increasing detail what the factory will look like and how it will work. This allows you to optimize the layout even before a physical prototype or test set-up has been built, saving a lot of time and money. And the beauty of it is that the model is not just a solution during the design phase, but remains in use, continuing continues to add value as a virtual dashboard once the factory is in operation. Interactivity, decision-making and insight into the consequences of choices: these are the points with which the IRH aims to make a difference.’

Dr.ir. R.G.J. Damgrave
dr.ir. R.G.J. Damgrave (Roy)
Professor of Design Engineering, University of Twente, Technology Domain Leader Industry 4.0 , Fraunhofer Project Center at the University of Twente

‘My work as a scientist and Industry Reality Hub partner focuses on decision making within the manufacturing industry. I want to contribute to that: decision-making that is well-founded and future-oriented. With new technologies we can give entrepreneurs insight into the consequences of decisions before they make them. Working together, sharing information and making decisions together - stakeholder decision-making - is essential; you can no longer all stay on your own island. At the same time, not everyone has to be overwhelmed by information from all those other islands: technology should ensure that you get filtered information for processing. The added value lies in the connection - but also in the filters between all those connections.’