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  • February 22, 2018

Virtual Reality in Manufacturing: Technology at a Tipping Point

Aditi Mishra
Product Marketing, Big Data

Virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) technologies are getting a lot more attention lately. Even as VR/AR moves quickly into the consumer mainstream, however, it’s clear that some manufacturers still view these technologies as too “out there” to be useful on the factory floor.

Some manufacturers’ perceptions of VR/AR aren’t keeping pace with real-world impacts. More than one-third of all U.S. manufacturers either already use VR/AR or expect to do so by the end of 2018, according to PwC research. In contrast, another one-third of manufacturers don’t see any real value or use for VR/AR and have no plans to implement applications based on the technology.

What’s even more interesting is the variety of VR/AR applications already in use. While the same research found that manufacturers most commonly use VR/AR to support product design and development as well as safety and manufacturing skills training, a significant number of VR/AR users reported applications such as virtual assembly, process-design improvement, maintenance and repair tasks, data and information access, remote collaboration, and supply-chain functions.

We’ve seen this process play out before with big data and the cloud. Many manufacturers found practical and profitable uses for big data and for cloud-based applications even as others rejected them as too immature, expensive, and impractical for everyday use.

We may be approaching the same tipping point with VR/AR technology. As the early adopters’ gains get too big to ignore, the fence-sitters will fall in behind them—and even today’s VR skeptics won’t be very far behind.

At the same time, however, VR/AR applications can create some unique challenges for existing IT systems and environments. How a manufacturer addresses these IT challenges can have a major impact on how quickly and how much it benefits from virtual reality investments. 

Virtual Reality Makes Its Move onto the Manufacturing Factory Floor

VR/AR plays a role in a wide range of manufacturing applications. Product design and prototyping was one of the first areas where VR infiltrated the manufacturing industry. Among manufacturers using VR/AR, PwC’s research states that 39% use it for product design and development—the most common application for the technology.

Safety and training is another area where VR/AR established an early presence. According to PwC, today about 28% of manufacturers use VR/AR safety and training applications, many of which support realistic and responsive training scenarios that would be too costly or too risky to conduct in a physical environment.

More recently, AR/VR technology has proven itself in other areas where it will have a direct, real-time impact on manufacturing operations.

By setting up a virtual production line, for example, engineers can perform and apply the results of time and motion studies—including real walking, maneuvering on or around equipment, reaching, equipment handling, and other elements that competing simulation methods struggle to replicate in any meaningful way.

Today, more manufacturers are turning to AR solutions that use glasses or a heads-up display to overlay up-to-date assembly instructions, visual or video examples, and other resources. These solutions give workers hands-free, voice-controlled access to information while they stay on-station and with hands on their task—a combination with huge implications for assembly-line uptime and productivity.

Many of the same AR innovations can also make life easier for maintenance personnel—giving them on-the-spot access to technical manuals, maintenance records, service requests, and other relevant data.

Manufacturers Face Real IT Challenges from Virtual Reality Tools

VR/AR applications pose multiple challenges for a typical IT organization. To implement these applications effectively, you’ll want to consider three areas where many manufacturing firms run into infrastructure-related problems; and consider how to address similar issues within your own organization:  

1. Capacity. Most manufacturing firms probably have enough aggregate unused compute capacity to support a typical set of VR/AR applications. The problem is that many of these applications—especially those creating immersive experiences within highly complex environments—may involve brief but very intensive processing loads at levels that a manufacturer hasn’t seen before and is ill-prepared to handle.  

2. Storage. Many VR/AR applications are data-intensive in multiple ways. Some applications may integrate real-time data flows from a factory floor or a warehouse. Others might require access to large data stores that allow them to recreate detailed and immersive virtual settings. Taken together, a typical set of VR/AR applications is likely to stretch—and often to exceed—a manufacturer’s fast storage networking and related capabilities.

3. Networking. Running VR/AR applications in on-premises environments is often the best way—and in many cases the only way—to achieve acceptable performance metrics, such as throughput and latency. Even then, a manufacturer’s ability to support VR/AR applications often depends on big-picture IT architecture issues. This includes answering where and how applications are positioned and integrated within a given set of processing, storage, and networking resources.

Engineered Systems: Real Benefits for Virtual Tools

A reliable and affordable solution to these IT challenges is Oracle Engineered Systems because these purpose-built systems integrate, optimize, and deploy a specific set of hardware, software, storage, and networking capabilities for a clearly defined range of uses.

One of the most common implementation scenarios for Engineered Systems involves pairing the Oracle Big Data Appliance (BDA) with Oracle Database—a direct integration accomplished using Oracle’s Big Data Connectors which efficiently load the data from Hadoop (BDA) into Oracle Database. As it turns out, this combination is ideal for illustrating how an Oracle Engineered System supports VR/AR applications in a manufacturing setting.

Big Data: Fueling Success with VR/AR Applications

VR/AR offerings may not be the first things that come to mind when you think about data-driven applications. Peel back the more visual and immersive elements of a typical VR/AR application, however, and you’ll find that these are, indeed, intensely data-driven and data-dependent manufacturing tools.

Let’s look at a specific example: a warehouse application that uses AR glasses to give workers the equivalent of X-ray vision. The AR application can display, in real time, information about a container’s contents; its origin and destination; special handling or hazardous materials alerts; and other manufacturing, supply chain, or logistics insights.

The AR tool’s data display might be a user experience masterpiece: clear, concise, and always relevant to the task at hand. Look under the hood, however, and you’ll see massive volumes of data streaming out of a firm’s ecommerce, ERP, shipping, and other enterprise applications. Within the warehouse itself, hundreds or even thousands of sensors—many of them designed to feed proprietary monitoring tools—feed thousands of additional data points per second into this data reservoir.

Manufacturing training and safety applications offer another great example of how big data—usually defined as high-volume, high-velocity, heterogeneous streams of structured and unstructured data—fuels many VR/AR applications. A realistic production-line simulator might incorporate real-time data streams from production equipment, performance monitoring systems, environmental sensors, and other sources. Some of this data may be structured, but a lot of it may arrive as continuous, high-volume streams of unstructured monitoring data.

The Oracle Big Data Appliance (BDA) does all of the things that traditional database systems generally cannot do: ingest and process big data streams; store them as-is in either structured or unstructured form; and make filtered subsets of this data reservoir available on demand to downstream database systems, analytics tools and other applications.

Manufacturers using BDA are capable of ingesting high-volume big data workloads—many of which would overwhelm non-optimized, generic systems—while still relying on a relatively compact and efficient IT environment.

In this case, our Engineered System, Oracle Big Data Appliance, owns the infrastructure layer of a two-tier model where it acquires, stores, processes, and analyzes the flowing data. The Oracle Database occupies the second tier, where it provides the compute and performance required to power this data processing and potentially run data-driven applications.

Engineered Systems and Virtual Reality: A Formula for Manufacturing Success

Advances in VR/AR will likely soon drive manufacturing technology ahead another big step. If VR/AR technologies continue to follow a similar trajectory to big data and the cloud, we’re going to notice a remarkable evolution in attitudes: Manufacturers that question today whether VR/AR has any meaningful role to play will soon be rushing to catch up.

At the same time, we’re going to hear concerns about just how much these applications demand from IT environments, which already run business-critical applications and data systems.

These issues point to another source of value associated with Engineered Systems: their ability to offer a cost-effective, largely self-contained solution, to problems that might otherwise take a huge toll in terms of cost, complexity, and risk. By creating Engineered Systems that are purpose-built to work seamlessly together, and by architecting these systems around sets of pre-configured components that are optimized to work with one another, we double down on this approach, and amplify the benefits they provide to manufacturers.

For manufacturers, all of these capabilities really boil down to a simple idea: Engineered Systems allow manufacturers to capitalize on the opportunities of VR/AR while largely avoiding the risks and costs. If you’re looking for a way to build a lasting competitive edge, that is a pretty good combination.


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