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'The genie is out of the bottle': Ventilator Challenge UK shows value of AR to manufacturers

Tanya Weaver

Assembling a ventilator at Airbus, where production line staff were trained using the Microsoft HoloLens (Credit: Airbus)
Assembling a ventilator at Airbus, where production line staff were trained using the Microsoft HoloLens (Credit: Airbus)

Earlier this year augmented reality (AR) proved to be a key enabling technology in helping a consortium of manufacturers switch their production lines to making ventilators.

The aim was to significantly scale up the production of two ventilator types from manufacturers Smiths Group and Penlon, which at the time were collectively producing 50 to 60 units a week.

Led by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the Ventilator Challenge UK saw the likes of Ford, GKN Aerospace, McLaren, Airbus, Meggitt and Siemens work towards this goal. And it was an AR tool from PTC that helped train production line staff at these manufacturing companies.

Initially the step-by-step footage of how to build these ventilators was captured at the assembly lines at Smiths and Penlon using PTC’s Vuforia Expert Capture AR technology and Microsoft’s HoloLens. Digital instructions were then added using PTC’s Vuforia Editor technology and the resulting virtual guide could be viewed using wearable equipment or a smart device, such as a tablet or phone.

“The Ventilator Challenge was a huge success for the UK in as much as it demonstrated the ability of top engineering companies to come together with a common cause and build a collaborative working arrangement and infrastructure that enabled the incredibly quick ramp-up of ventilator production. And Vuforia Expert Capture solved an immediate and significant problem in training up the assembly technicians at these companies in how to assemble and test ventilators,” said Paul Haimes, vice-president of business development and field engineering at PTC. 

Data-sharing benefits

The project proved AR’s credentials as a training aid and communication tool especially for remote working, but what about its use in the context of Industry 4.0. or digital manufacturing? According to Haimes, it’s in the convergence of AR information with Internet of Things data coming from connected devices within the factory where the real value of AR will be found. 

“For instance, a user can walk up to a machine tool and immediately get all the information relating to its operating conditions and the parameters around it streamed directly in front of them in an AR view via their wearable or smart device,” said Haimes.

So it’s obvious that maintenance is a key use case for AR, which can even be carried out remotely with a technician. Through the use of PTC’s Vuforia Studio software a machine’s CAD data can even be combined with its IoT data. Overlaying this realtime digital data onto a physical product provides a detailed AR experience that not only provides a view of the exterior of the machine but also allows users to visualise what’s going on inside.

The availability of 5G in manufacturing environments and the ability to transmit data simultaneously over a network from multiple sensors and devices will further enhance these AR experiences. “I think 5G will have a huge impact on the ability to stream data, not just IoT data but also viewable information. The faster you can do that the more seamless the AR experience will be,” said Haimes. 

Efficiency gains

Whereas in the past AR may have been seen as a gimmick, with more and more manufacturers now adopting the technology it’s proving its value with increased productivity and efficiency gains being the headline benefits. 

Haimes said: “The Ventilator Challenge showcased what UK manufacturing can achieve in terms of increasing productivity by working in a smarter fashion, and AR technology was a part of that. The genie is out of the bottle and if we see an uptake in the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies then that will be something positive that has come out of the Covid-19 situation.” 


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 

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