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Streaming Innovation in Manufacturing: Building the Future
The assembly line has changed. Streaming video and audio, as well as machine learning and computer vision, are helping manufacturing become smarter and leaner.

In our ongoing series on highlighting various market verticals, we’re taking a look at the trend of using streaming—from audio and video to analytics—in the manufacturing sector.

Manufacturing is growing again, but according to a recent Deloitte study, 2.4 million jobs could go unfilled over the next decade due to a gap between the skills required by available positions and the abilities of the existing talent pool.

And it’s not just in North America. Advanced Manufacturing.org recently ran an article with the headline “Africa as the ‘Next Growth Miracle,’” a reminder that many skilled jobs on the continent will require training and on-the-job mentorship.

Throughout this article, we will come back to that very point and look at various ways that streaming helps solve the overarching issue of too few experts in any one manufacturing locale.

In-Field Maintenance

Another recent AdvancedManufacturing.org article about smart manufacturing mentioned the rise in the use of augmented reality (AR). One point that the article drove home was the use of AR in maintenance and repair, surmising that its usage has benefits for more than just one person in the maintenance process.

The obvious initial benefit is for the technician in the field, as he or she performs “two-handed maintenance” thanks to the use of smart glasses or AR headsets. These headsets free up the wearers from having to hold a schematic or diagram in one hand, or even having to look away and use both hands to fumble with a laptop or tablet to watch a video about the particular device and its specialized maintenance.

The secondary benefit, though, is the ability to provide a remote technician, perhaps one that is more experienced on a particular product or device, as a just-in-time coach or mentor. According to Kurt Hoffmeister, VP of research and development at Mechdyne, the company has been testing a combination of local and remote AR as a way to connect a senior technician with a less-experienced technician who is troubleshooting a problem in the field.

“We tested it internationally. It works very well,” says Hoffmeister in the article. “It’s like a Skype for augmented reality,” he notes, adding that the senior technician not only can “see first-hand what the junior technician is looking at” but can also potentially feed additional on-demand streams or overlays directly to the junior technician.

Closer to the manufacturing line, the article cites a company named Delta Sigma that has expanded the use of AR on its assembly lines. Its CEO, Roger Richardson, spoke at AeroDef, an event for aerospace and defense manufacturers, on the topic of what is now being called “Industry 4.0” as the use of AR begins to positively impact the smart manufacturing process.

Delta Sigma, which focuses on commercial and defense aerospace manufacturing, got its start in AR over a decade ago, as part of an assembly line for the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet’s buildout. While initially used just to enhance manufacturing of the jet’s vertical stabilizer, Richardson said they’ve expanded the use of AR across multiple assembly lines.

“[O]ur augmented reality system, called ProjectionWorks, has been installed on 22 different aircraft production lines, in 31 different factories,” said Richardson.

Delta Sigma, which focuses on commercial and defense aerospace manufacturing, got its start in augmented reality (AR) over a decade ago, as part of an assembly line for the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet’s buildout. While initially used just to enhance manufacturing of the jet’s vertical stabilizer, the use of AR across multiple assembly lines has been expanded.

Tossing Out the Paper

Richardson stated that one of the biggest challenges in moving toward these types of AR solutions for manufacturing—which can include something as simple as a detailed diagram projected on an assembly surface, or even real-time delivery of one- or two-way video feeds—is the mindset of most manufacturing facilities.

One key, Richardson noted, is the realization that the paper process on which most manufacturing is based has limitations.

“A paper process has a lot of limitations in how information is conveyed, and augmented reality doesn’t have these limitations,” said Richardson. “You’re not just going to take a paper process and directly convert it to augmented reality.”

Instead, Richardson said, the best approach is to go back to the basics—if need be, going as far back into the design process as feasible—to look at the digital footprint left by designers for clues about the best way to assemble or manufacture a part from a series of components.

The digital footprint could include computer-aided design (CAD) documents, which can be rotated in multiple dimensions, or it could include pre-made demonstration videos from the design and prototyping process.

That process leads back to what’s referred to as “virtual manufacturing,” where the CAD drawings for assembly augment the total lifecycle of a product that may require not just assembly but return and disassembly, all on the same manufacturing or production floor. That’s the premise behind product lifecycle management, especially for manufactured components or devices that are small enough to be brought back in for disassembly or upgrading, yet are impractical or too delicate an operation to handle in the field.

The “virtual” in virtual manufacturing has to do with the simulation of a manufacturing process or physical layout before the actual assembly line is created. According to TechTarget, which focuses on enterprise resource planning (ERP), the use of simulations allow for modeling and optimization of “critical operations and entities in a factory plant.” 

While the concept initially started as a way to design the tools needed for assembly, virtual manufacturing now has moved up the supply chain to “encompass production processes and the products themselves” in a more holistic approach to optimal design.

The Human Factor

One piece that’s still lacking is the overall people aspect. As we’ve seen via news reports about Amazon warehouse employees during last year’s Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, workers who are forced to do jobs at an unrealistic pace—to try to keep up with robotic warehouses or manufacturing, for instance— at low wages and in poor working conditions will often stand up and point out the lack of safety or knowledge to properly perform a job.

One area where the pace is increasing, but humans still have an advantage over automated machines (aka robots), is the process of tearing down a piece of equipment that’s come back for an upgrade.

In a report for CNBC, Morgan Brennan looks at a plant in Grove City, Pa., and notes that it requires a combination of Big Data, analytics, and the human factor to quickly assess repair needs.

“GE workers at this Grove City, Pa., facility use data to assess locomotive engines that are coming in for repair,” says Brennan. “That’s a process that allows them to target specific parts rather than do full tear downs.... The shift involves transitioning from paper to the cloud” to create what Brennan calls a “digital thread” that the new teams of experienced engineers and newer data analytics employees use to determine repair requirements.

The skills mismatches mentioned at the beginning of this article will require not just significant initial training but also more on-the-job mentoring. Fortunately, streaming video may be able to address the latter issue, even if the mentor is physically on the assembly line.

Even without the requirement to “pick up the pace,” there’s the question of optimizing a workflow or process using “remote experts” for just-in-time feedback. Similar to the scenario mentioned above, where AR assists a technician in remote troubleshooting, the idea with “remote experts” is to use retirees, who were once company employees, to provide a level of expertise in training.

In addition to the retirees, who know the shop floor from experience, there’s also the growing use of “remote experts” to train on a particular piece of machinery.

According to an AdvancedManufacturing.org article on the topic of remote experts, one example might be die-stamping machines. These machines used to be manufactured in the U.S., for use in creating dies out of a metal coil. But most of the die-stamping equipment is now made abroad, with some expertise in Germany and more in Korea.

“If you have a tool built over there and it’s over here, how do you deal with it?” asks Doug Magyari, CEO of IMMY, before answering his own question with the concept of a remote expert.