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Changing gear – how augmented reality is making inroads in car manufacturing

Logistics & Intralogistics 4.0

Industry 4.0 is set to transform the automotive industry and AR in particular is already demonstrating it has applications right through the value chain

Automotive manufacturing has always had a reputation for being on the leading edge of technological advance, from pioneering moving assembly lines at Ford in the early 1910s to the widespread introduction of industrial robots in the 1970s.

The latest step change is Industry 4.0, which arrives opportunely just as the sector is gearing up to switch to producing EVs. The array of digital technologies that can have an impact – alone or in combination – includes cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics, AI, blockchain and augmented reality, and all are beginning to make inroads from the spotless plants of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) through to showrooms and servicing centres.

“The holistic digital transformation of processes found in Industry 4.0 makes manufacturers and suppliers more competitive, and the whole industry is more sustainable and resilient especially in the transition to electric vehicles,” says Stefan Baumgart, Product Management Director at global technology organisation TeamViewer. “The most important concepts are the Internet of Things, the technologies that enable the connection with machines, and the Internet of Humans in the shape of AR-oriented wearable devices.”

Car owners will already be familiar with some examples of AR in HUD (heads-up-displays) and ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems). However, AR has applications across multiple operations including design, assembly, inspection, maintenance, training and even sales. Such is the potential the global automotive market for AR is projected to grow from $4.51 billion in 2021 to $14.44 billion in 2028 according to Fortune Business Insights.

“The value of the full end-to-end digital thread is huge,” says Eric Abbruzzese, Research Director at global technology intelligence firm ABI Research.

“AR in particular is going to have a big impact. ABI’s research points to the real take-off happening next year [2022] but BMW and Volvo are two manufacturers already exploiting its potential to design, inspect parts and reduce expensive downtime.”

Putting a car together is a complicated process involving thousands of components that differ depending on spec and so cannot all be handled by robots. Volvo turned to smart wearables in 2016, adopting Microsoft’s HoloLens to enable production line workers to digitally view assembly instructions in real time. Guidelines, technical drawings and video tutorials can be viewed with the glasses, freeing hands and removing the need for regular checks at work stations.

“AR as a technology is truly a game changer in this context and that’s why it’s an integral part of any industry 4.0 initiative,”

says Baumgart. “It can support frontline workers in manual processes across the entire value chain, resulting in faster processes with higher quality and significantly improved insights. And the return on investment can be achieved within a few weeks since there are more and more standardised solutions and integrations available for various back-end systems and a greater choice of hardware.”

Maintenance often carries the same technical complexity as assembly. Using AR wearables staff can receive real-time information on the parts that need to be changed, the tools to use and the replacement procedure. Engine control unit (ECU) systems only offer basic diagnostics that often require more detailed research, and fuse boxes can be fiendishly complex, especially in large trucks. This year Skoda announced it was piloting AR in production line maintenance using HoloLens to display technical information or allow engineers to consult colleagues off-site.

The automotive industry has long been highly focused on potential global supply chain issues and AR provides a practical solution here too. To improve performance of its just-in-time and just-in-sequence services, Schnellecke Logistics introduced TeamViewer Frontline’s xPick and xMake systems in 2016 for module assembly and line feed of car components at its Wolfsburg plant in Germany. Staff were equipped with smart glasses that allowed them to work hands-free, enabling more ergonomic, multi-order picking of bulky parts. Assembly procedures were also streamlined.

Once on the road, vehicles need regular maintenance. Toyota Deutschland’s Toyota and Lexus workshops provide comprehensive servicing for customers. In the past, when a problem could not be fixed on the spot the centre had to refer to head office for assistance, prolonging the time the car was off the road. In 2020 the dealer turned to TeamViewer Frontline’s remote support solution. A mechanic can now contact a field expert via video call while wearing smart glasses that display the exact field of view.

“The benefits of remote support in terms of savings in travel costs, time and also sustainability are becoming more and more clear to manufacturers,” says Baumgart. “In fact we have just announced a partnership with Ford to provide enhanced support to mechanics across its global network of dealers.”

Local mechanics anywhere can now reach out to Ford’s central Technical Assistance Centre (TAC) for specialist support. TAC technicians can add on-screen annotations and extra documentation directly in the line of sight of the repair mechanics using wearables as well as zoom in, share their screen and record the session.

At elite level, Formula One teams are also turning to TeamViewer’s tech. This season the company became a key sponsor of Mercedes-AMG Petronas but the deal is about more than just raising brand awareness. The Silver Arrows are exploring the potential of AR to make the team more competitive by speeding up technical support and using remote technicians at its Brackley base to support mechanics at GPs, thus reducing expenditure. TeamViewer is, in turn, benefiting from the feedback.

“F1 is a highly optimised and super competitive environment,” says Baumgart. “The team there challenges our product regularly and we have made enhancements as a result. Our customers will now benefit from those improvements in the near future, so it’s a mutually beneficial partnership.”

As it enters a new phase of digitisation, AR is vying for pole position in the optimisation of car manufacturing.

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