Augmented Reality in the Transportation and Logistics Sector: Part 5
In this fifth and final part of our five-part Augmented Reality for Transportation and Logistics series, we’ll look at the kinds of interaction technologies that can help make an AR implementation successful. We’ll also explore the importance of getting and using the data you get from your AR solution to iterate and improve on the benefits it offers. It is important to build a virtuous cycle of continual learning and improvement (as well as broader enterprise integration with existing operating systems, tools, management and AI solutions). Finally, we’ll recap the steps you’ll need to take to achieve a successful AR implementation.
In the first four parts of our series, we looked at some overall business trends in the transportation and logistics sector. We did a “deep dive” on one transportation and logistics sector in particular (trucking). We explored how any transportation and logistics company considering Augmented Reality as a solution to some of its business challenges might calculate “return on investment” (ROI). Finally, we looked at how you might begin planning the roll-out of an augmented reality solution.
The Right Solution at the Right Time
Before looking in detail at what it means to run an AR solution within your organization, consider for a minute where we are in the AR adoption curve – and the kinds of considerations you may be thinking about before any widespread adoption of an AR solution. You may want to implement an AR system aimed at the Warehouse and Logistics sector – and want to reduce errors, provide faster fulfillment of orders or enable “pick by vision” scenarios that can eliminate the need for clipboards and handheld scanners.
Alternatively, may have a need to service trucks, provide maintenance, repair and operations support for railways and shipping companies or service expensive commercial aircraft. Whatever your need, the key is that you want the right solution at the right time. You don’t want to adopt a new technology too early.
History is littered with examples of technologies that were ahead of their time – including the videophone and the handheld computer. Both have been available, in one form or another, since the 1980s – but neither of them achieved widespread use and popularity until they morphed into a form that was easier to use and provided the right applications.
Not only was the original videophone of the late 1980s expensive and heavily constrained by the limited bandwidth of the day, but it wasn’t easy to use. It would take another two decades before computer-based videoconferencing (and eventually smartphone phone and tablet-based apps such as FaceTime, WebEx, Skype and Facebook) become commonplace.
Meanwhile, although the handheld computer achieved some limited success in industrial settings and among tech enthusiasts, it wasn’t until the smartphone arrived (and notably the Apple iPhone) that handheld computing came into its own. When the right hardware was combined with an intuitive, gesture-based interface and high-speed wireless communications, consumers really started to buy and use these devices – and make the most of applications for them.
The Right Interaction Model is Key
In both examples above, the underlying technology needed the right interaction model to make it broadly useful.
The same is true of AR – where the right interaction model can make all the difference between something that provides a great demonstration of potential and a solution that can be tested, piloted and rolled out in a real-world setting.
There are four common ways to interact with the augmented reality technology:
- Gestures – Most smart glasses used in AR have front-facing cameras that offer the ability for the glasses to “see ” what a user sees – and be able to interpret the motion of a hand in front of them. Gestures are a great way to precisely interact and are perfect for dirty or loud environments. To be effective, an AR solution needs a precise and efficient hand tracking algorithm can enable the smart glasses to take advantage of an on-board RGB camera or depth sensor to recognize and respond to gestures. This will provide a true hands-free working experience.
- Voice – There are some situations when gestures are not ideal. These include situations where a user’s hands may be occupied with tools. In that case, voice commands provide an important and safe alternative for interacting with smart glasses. Ideally, you want to be able to add voice commands to your smart glass system actions and allow your developers to define voice commands to extend their apps.
- Head motion – In situations where voice commands and gestures are not suitable, (such as noisy environments), head motion is a great alternative. If your AR solution provides multi-display and sphere view technologies, it will allow workers to access and scroll between content (including video feeds) and drill into images, maps, and 3D models with a simple motion of their heads.
- Touch – Good Augmented Reality solutions in manufacturing should provide support for industry-standard touchscreen devices so that workers using popular phones and tablets can leverage some of AR features (including video conferencing, on-screen guidance and documentation such as shop manuals) when they are working in environments where they don’t have to use work gloves or carry tools in their hands.
It’s vital to note here that you should look for an AR solution that supports all these methods of interaction (often known as ‘multi-modal’ solutions) in order to provide maximum flexibility so that you can deploy the technology in a broad range of scenarios. Augmented Reality is not a ‘one size fits all’ business.
Use Data to Make Smart AR Decisions
As you assess the potential Augmented Reality solutions that may fit your business, you need to keep in mind that the value of the AR solution lies not only in what it can help your employees do (using features such as remote expert video calling and contextual surfacing of step-by-step instructions), but also the insight you can derive from the work that your employees do while using the AR solution.
Atheer’s own AR platform, for example, includes the ability to allow both the creation and delivery of a variety of structured work instructions – including step-by-step instructions delivered to smartglasses (within the user’s field of vision) as “taskflows”, but also gain vital business insight on how those taskflows are used.
For any enterprise customer that relies on working through compliance checklists or needs to follow very specific processes, there’s huge value in trackable AR-delivered instructions such as taskflows. In an earlier post, for example, we explored how they could be used in the aviation industry for pre-flight inspections. World-renowned helicopter pilot Chuck Aaron, the only US pilot licensed by the FAA to perform aerobatics in a helicopter, recently reviewed how he can use this technology for these inspections.
Real business insight can be gained from being able to:
- Get realtime information about which taskflows each user has undertaken – There’s no point in putting a lot of time and energy in developing in-depth, detailed taskflows if your workforce is not going to adopt them. Being able to see which of your employees is using a particular taskflow can be a big help in understanding why it may not be working. It could be because users are unaware of the availability of the workflow, that there are problems with the workflow itself – or that particular users are finding it hard to adapt to new ways of working and perhaps need more training and encouragement.
- See how far each user gets in executing on those taskflows – This is vital in both getting a more detailed understanding of how successfully a given taskflow is being adopted by your workforce. It can also be used to provide insight about whether you need to refine or improve a particular step in the workflow. If, for example, you find that most users are halting work on a 10-step taskflow at Step 4, you’ll have clear data that tells you there are problems with either the instructions you have provided or in some aspect of the work itself within that step. You’ll then be able to talk to the users, figure out the issues they are having and then refine the workflow so that it can be used more effectively.
- Identify how long it takes each user to execute on a given task – In designing a taskflow for a particular task, you will probably have a target timeframe in mind for how long it takes to accomplish each task. With taskflow reporting, you can see exactly when each step in the taskflow was started – and any times when users had to pause and resume any part of a taskflow. For taskflow designers, this is powerful as it again helps them understand whether the taskflow is actually helping employees to be more effective.
- Make sure that all users are working with the very latest version of task flows – It’s important to have a solution that offers task flow synchronization. As complex task flows are improved and updated, you want to ensure that they are immediately available to all connected users. Synchronization ensures that your workforce has immediate access (via their smart glasses) to the very latest updated task flow guidance so that they can do their jobs in the fastest, safest and more effective way possible. This is particularly important in dynamic environments where processes and workflows can change quickly. It’s also very useful when new compliance rules need to be reflected quickly in taskflows.
- Collect and store taskflow data locally – You also shouldn’t need to be connected to a network in order to get the full benefit of taskflows. You will want a solution that is designed to keep tracking the use – and effectiveness – of a given taskflow, even while the smartglasses being used to deliver the taskflow are offline. For a workforce that carries out maintenance work underground (on perhaps a subway line or in a mine) and there is no data connectivity, you want workers to be able to still load taskflows onto their smartglasses while they have connectivity, do the work detailed in the taskflow and then have the data about that work automatically uploaded the next time they connect to their network.
For any enterprise customer that relies on working through compliance checklists or needs to follow very specific processes, there’s huge value in trackable AR-delivered instructions such as taskflows.
Getting data about how workflow components are used in your AR solutions provides a great way to not only assess the effectiveness of your workflows – and drive changes to them based on the actionable business insights you are getting about them – but also to quickly make the most up-to-date instructions available to your entire workforce.
Setting yourself up for success
To achieve the best success in the testing and rollout of your AR system:
- Make sure that you deploy AR devices to a select set of users early and get feedback from them before undertaking a broader rollout.
- Be proactive about offering detailed feedback to the provider any AR hardware or software you use. Augmented Reality is still a young industry and any good provider will want to know when something doesn’t work for your company and why.
- Pay close attention to reliability during your lab and trial phases. Have high standards. If your AR system falters or flickers or in any way doesn’t work properly when you roll it out broadly – even if it’s just a case of the WiFi signal being lost – skepticism can creep in and your workforce may decide it’s too early to be deploying this technology. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
- Just as you would have a pre-flight checklist before putting any new aircraft into service, there’s also a defined process for getting an Augmented Reality into the hands of your workforce in a way that’s going to deliver the maximum possible return on investment.
To help provide clarity on that process, here’s our checklist:
- Define the business problem you want to use AR to tackle first – Companies in the transportation and logistics sector are now starting to see that they have applicable ‘use cases’ for AR.
- Define yours without limits. Be bold and consider the broadest possible applicability – from production line to MRO shop floor to training scenarios. There are a great many places where AR technology could offer value.
- Identifying the right problem is important. Until you find that problem with high impact on your company, you’re on the fringe and at some point, someone’s going to step in saying ‘this doesn’t work for us’ or that it’s too expensive, it’s too slow or there’s another priority.
- Detail your current state: look at how you approach your business problems now and what that approach costs you – In order to accurately measure the benefit of any planned AR deployment, you’ll need a strong understanding of your existing processes and approaches.
- You’ll also require data about how well things work (or don’t work) now, with measurements of downtime, time to resolve issues, maintenance costs, training costs, new employee ramp-up times, safety and productivity all forming part of that data set.
- Recognize that one size does not fit all – As discussed earlier, know that you may need different parts of an AR solution to meet the varying needs within your business.
- Make your assessment of your ‘current state ‘ as broad as possible, so that you can gain a comprehensive view of how AR will benefit your industrial enterprise.
- Try it and measure the results in the lab or the field – You need to come up with a plan that covers who is going to do the testing in a lab and then who is going to do the testing in the field. Have those people be the early advocates for the solution – and pick people that care about change and want to try new things.
- Learn and refine from your trials – Once you have a solution that works well in the lab, take it to the field. This can be a controlled environment with real users. If that field trial delivers (or exceeds) the expected results – and you’re tracking how well it works from a hardware and software perspective (and you’re confident that you are using AR to solve the right problem), you can now truly deploy it.
- Plan for success by involving users early: the smartest person in AR deployment is all of us – AR represents a big change in how your company works. It promises a lot. By involving everyone in the AR deployment (once you’ve undertaken all the prep work outlined above), you can make sure that it will deliver in its great promise – truly transforming the way your company works.
Originally this article was published here.
This article was written by Geof Wheelwright, a technology journalist for more than 25 years (including work for The Times of London, the Financial Times, Newsweek, Time Magazine, The Guardian and trade publications such as Computerworld and Geekwire) and is now the Director of Marketing Communications for Mountain View, California-based Atheer, Inc.