Gary Sheedy, Head of Sales at RE’FLEKT, chatted to us recently about how Augmented Reality can increase operational efficiency in industry.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I come from an engineering, industry and business development background. Understanding how technology works helps me find ways to translate it into uses that benefit people.
What does RE’FLEKT do?
We offer two main tools to help our clients run their operations more efficiently utilising AR (REFLEKT ONE) and real-time collaboration (REFLEKT Remote). Our content generation tools, REFLEKT ONE enable our clients to create their own content for e.g. training staff, whereas our collaboration tool, REFLEKT Remote help our clients communicate in real-time with their customers or technicians, via apps, on various end devices. We are hardware agnostic and support all hand held and wearable devices; our focus is on thinking about the features that might benefit our clients. Ultimately, the technology allows for an exchange. It’s interactive and collaborative; visual and two-way.
Our augmented reality based Remote tool allows a remote expert to see what a person in another location sees. The real-time support sessions can also be recorded and re-used later, for example for training purposes. You can also highlight elements on the screen real-time (we call these “sticky annotations”), so you can make notes on the screen remotely, and those notes stick in the real world, overlaid on for example, machinery. The field user sees the highlighted notes even after the end of the call. The technology also allows for pushing of files, drawings and other content real time during the call.
Which sectors and geographies do your clients come from?
Our clients truly come from across the board, from transport to manufacturing, but mostly from the medical technology field. Our clients are in our key markets Europe and North America where we have a presence. We see an increasing interest from companies in Asia and Australia and we are in contact with partners and enterprises.
What kinds of challenges are your clients facing in 2020?
Covid-19 has naturally had a huge impact on all industries. As we know, the lockdowns have forced many factories to close, with people working from home. In these exceptional times, business continuation is paramount. We are helping our clients keep their operations running.
Some of the particular challenges we have been helping our clients respond to include finding ways aroundrestricted access to facilities; and creating solutions for remote working, including AR-assisted expert support.
Have you noticed any change in uptake of augmented reality solutions since the onset of the pandemic?
Overall, we are finding that there has been a huge learning curve for clients this year. Our customers are engaging more deeply now with the possibilities that augmented reality offers.
Some of our client sectors, for example automotive and aerospace, are currently struggling, but for example pharmaceuticals and medical devices sectors have shown a significant increase in interest in AR tools. These segments must stay operational despite the restrictions and have to find new ways of working.
How can AR tools help companies during the pandemic?
Augmented reality can provide consistent, real-time support and information to users and operators despite geographic distance.
MedTech as a sector is an interesting example because of its heavily regulated operating environment. Augmented reality can help comply with regulations, for example, by making the calibration of processes repeatable and verifiable. There is also significant value added in being able to track and audit the trail of all activities, from training to commissioning and maintenance.
How can augmented reality help in assembly and manufacturing?
AR can be used to create dynamic step-by-step assembly instructions that play in a loop that is relevant to the assembly step being undertaken. The instructions are provided in visually realistic animations, overlaid over the real world.
One of our clients, a medical device manufacturer, is using our AR authoring tools to create training content for their operators in line. The feedback from operators has been incredible: AR training content is less confusing than traditional manuals and training, helping the training stick and making it easier to carry out assembly work. The pressure of making mistakes is off thanks to the step-by-step AR instructors, giving the operators confidence and increasing their job satisfaction. The training time has reduced also, and knowledge retention is higher.
How is AR used for maintenance, repairs and overhaul?
AR connects data and users dynamically. AR tools can be used for remote support, to assist in decision-making, and to capture and record processes to provide a digital audit trail.
In repairs and overhaul, many jobs can be completed remotely thanks to AR tools. AR-support helps field operators know what they need to be looking at, which means you don’t necessarily have to send engineers on site. Clients can be serviced remotely, and a validated, documented audit trail can be created easily. AR can also be deployed to help with inspection, filtering and step-by-step remote support, speeding things up.
In your view, what are the main benefits of augmented reality to industry?
AR-powered training tools and dynamic instruction manuals increase knowledge retention, make learning faster and reduce mistakes. They also help speed up set-up and maintenance processes.
Meanwhile, AR-based remote assistance and support reduces the need for in-person on-site presence. You can also train the algorithm to recognise problems and to create data – forming the basis for predictive maintenance not based on probabilities but actual live data.
How do your clients get started with AR? What is a typical client journey like?
We engage with our clients by starting with a scoping exercise. We look at their operating environment to identify potential use cases, and where AR would add the most value. We try to understand what staff and other resources are available and find the tangible benefits that are quantifiable.
We then deliver a first use case to the client, and after that provide them with a license and training for them to begin to create their own AR content. We support the client throughout the journey, by, for example, providing top-up training where needed. So the journey is from bundle to license, towards developing their own content.
The client can naturally opt out at any stage if they want to. Once the business value has been demonstrated through a use case, it’s then easy to deploy the solutions, and also for other business areas within the company to try out a use case. Usually there is organic growth within the client organisation after the use case, within one year of the first use case.
Can you talk us through AR content authoring? Is it an important tool for your clients?
AR content authoring is like PowerPoint for augmented reality. It enables importing of CAD or 3D models into a development environment to create AR workflows.
We train the customer to author the content, so they don’t have to send intellectual property out of the company. The metadata can be removed, so that one cannot reverse engineer products from the information that is used to create the AR content. We also have licenses that can be installed for specific sites or premises only, so the client doesn’t have to worry about IP leaks.
What kinds of opportunities do you see for companies that use augmented reality in their processes? Are there new operating or business models emerging?
AR helps companies deliver more accurate information, and manage it better, in addition to the benefits of re-using existing content and re-purposing it into a more effective format.
We often find that when working with our clients, the use case and later deployment trigger a wider shift in thinking within the organisation. Digital interactive technologies offer big advantages to improving customer experience by delivering relevant data in a visual, understandable format, and contextualising it.
What are your thoughts on future commercial uses of AR?
The power of augmented reality lies in visualising objects and contextualising them. For example, when you look at a machine, with the help of AR you can access the historic data associated with it, as well as the current schedule of maintenance and repairs, and you can make this information visible as and when you need it, accessing it, ultimately, from your mobile device. At the heart of these conversations there is a wider issue of digitalisation of operations, and we are always keen to have these discussions with our clients.