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The many benefits of virtual logistics

An interview with Professor Philipp Rauschnabel from the Bundeswehr University Munich on augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in logistics.

Where are VR and AR primarily used?

Philipp Rauschnabel: VR is helpful in planning plants and systems as well as in training. It can be used, for instance, to simulate an assembly line where new employees can learn their various work steps. A big advantage: The simulation allows companies to train employees on a virtual assembly without risking any production downtime in the event of an operating error. AR is particularly suitable for work instructions. These days many production plants have screens displaying explanations of what products should look like. Workers, however, must transfer abstract instructions to the actual product in front of them, a process that can lead to mistakes. AR can help by displaying these instructions (“Insert this screw into the fourteenth hole from the left”) and directly where the information is needed (the hole highlighted). The same is true for the assembly of new plant components. AR can also be used to support maintenance work. Or an external expert can step in live in the form of remote assistance.

But these opportunities are seldom used. What is thwarting implementation?

Apart from a general reservation about innovative technologies in some companies, two main factors make implementation difficult: First, there is often no one in the company who feels responsible for strategically integrating AR. It’s often the case that a CEO “discovers” AR at a conference and decides to give it shot but doesn’t have a particular problem to use it for in mind. The other obstacle is that users are often not involved, leading to resentment. 

Google Glass was a sensation when it was launched, but the smart glasses never really caught on. Are there any new, more practical solutions?

Google Glass disappeared from the consumer market largely because of the questionable design. Also, the smart glasses didn’t offer any added value, and there was no real launch communication. That said, the glasses are still being used by businesses and have undergone further development.

What’s the way forward in terms of hardware?

AR devices are often criticized for being too big and heavy. People don’t want to wear them for too long. The latest models, however, are much smaller and lighter, and can be worn for an hour or more. There is a future for glasses from various manufacturers like Google, Microsoft and Apple, as well as for smaller specialists. In the future, we might also see AR contact lenses.

Depth sensors are increasingly being used in mobile devices. They could soon become standard features in many tablets and smartphones, used to scan a room and create a 3D model. Apple and Facebook are very interested in the consumer market, but other devices – for example, from Epson or Microsoft – primarily target the enterprise sector. This development is comparable with that of laptops or mobile phones, which were initially enterprise technologies. 

Also of importance is 5G wireless. The trend here is for less processing to happen on the device itself but instead for the livestream of the sensors to be sent to computers, processed there and sent back. Latencies are an issue because everything must happen in real time. So, one solution is to have the server positioned as close as possible, not hundreds of miles away.

Digitization is already well advanced in logistics and warehousing, such as in pick-by-vision technology. But are there other possibilities?

For the new installation of a hall with moving elements, for example, you can pack the CAD model of a robot into the AR solution and position it virtually in the factory hall. It’s is then very easy to see, for example, how the arm pivots, what space it needs and so on.

Can AR/VR also simplify the dialog between human and machine?

Yes. People think in three dimensions, but applications to date have been restricted to 2D screens. The challenge now is to develop the interface in a way that makes sense for humans. The question is: How can we best interact with 3D elements in AR?

Can AR/VR also simplify the dialog between human and machine?

Yes. People think in three dimensions, but applications to date have been restricted to 2D screens. The challenge now is to develop the interface in a way that makes sense for humans. The question is: How can we best interact with 3D elements in AR?

How can we imagine that for the installation of a new sorter, for example? What are the particular advantages of AR?

The advantages are already tangible during planning: What does the device look like virtually in the real hall? How much space does it take up? Can I still get to all the doors? A presentation like that is also a convincing sales argument. Or take construction and maintenance as another example. The fitters can get instructions direct from the glasses. We are currently working on a project in which the device shows workers where to place the individual items. Every work step is also documented in a photo. The manager can connect to the camera to check whether everything is being done correctly. In the event of questions, an expert can be consulted who then provides instructions via the data glasses.

Doesn’t that mean that experts are ultimately not be needed on site?

I wouldn’t go quite so far. But good employees can be deployed elsewhere far more efficiently. That also means that travel times are reduced, as technicians might spend 30 percent of the week simply traveling to customers. With AR, they can direct the installation or repair remotely and only travel to the site in the event of a real emergency.

Comprehensive use of AR and VR is in its infancy. Will the virtual cyborg become the human model of the future?

The boundaries between humans and technology are disappearing. We can see this in the anthropomorphizing of technologies such as Apple’s Siri and Google’s “Alexa,” which function as bots. As a nice side effect, they are treated with more care than non-human ones. On the other hand, driving a car today without a navigation system is practically impossible for many people who can’t be bothered reading a map. Navigation is something you don’t need to think about. In the production process, this could mean that unskilled workers could take on more complex tasks because they get step-by-step instructions. However, they may also end up feeling patronized, controlled or even degraded as “flesh-and-blood robots.” And that brings us back to the subject of acceptance.

Philipp A. Rauschnabel is Professor for Digital Marketing and Media Innovation at the Bundeswehr University Munich. His research focuses on the use of these technologies in marketing and other areas, such as production and training. Prior to this, he worked on these subjects as assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Interroll values Google Glasses

Interroll Spain and Siemens recently collaborated on a crossbelt sorter project in Guarroman, Spain, for Nacex, a provider of express courier services in Spain, Andorra and Portugal. When the time came to install the sorter, however, corona travel restrictions prevented the Interroll installation team in Germany from making the trip.

Interroll Spain opted for an innovative approach using Google Glass. The local Spanish team installed the sorter combined with remote support from their German colleagues. Google Glass proved extremely effective in the new system installation. The technology will become an integral part of the Interroll Lifetime Service program for future installation and maintenance work.

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