In all likelihood, you, the average consumer, will not buy a pair of augmented-reality smart glasses that provide a real-time HUD as you go about your day anytime soon. The current generation of smart glasses marketed to the general public tend to be high in price, short on battery life, and low on reasons to actually wear them.
But that changes if you look to the factory or the shop-room floor. In such settings, augmented-reality smart glasses are already being deployed across a wide swath of industries. The high price of smart glasses looks much less imposing when it’s seen as a capital expense to help make a workforce more capable. More importantly, some companies are finding that equipping workers with augmented-reality smart glasses is providing immediate and obvious returns on investment in both time and safety.
It seems possible that the adoption of smart glasses by consumers may resemble that of computers: The mainframes used in the early days of computing were extremely expensive, and were strictly owned by companies. But as technology improved, computers became increasingly ubiquitous at workers’ desks. The PC revolution completed the process, leading to computers being found in the vast majority of American homes.
Augmented-reality smart glasses are likely to retain their foothold as something owned and used by businesses in the industrial sphere, where high prices aren’t a deterrent, ROI is easy to measure, and narrowly defined use cases are a benefit, not a disadvantage. But the work being done now in the industrial world will all be put to use as tech companies try to figure out how to build augmented-reality smart glasses meant to be worn to the coffee shop and not strictly on the shop floor.
How Toyota Stopped Using Paper to Paint Cars
At Toyota’s car manufacturing plants, painting is a matter of precision. Every car needs a primary coating for rust prevention, an intermediate coating to establish color, and an overcoating that provides luster and durability. There can be many, many layers of paint applied at each stage of this process, and ideally, at the end of the process, all of the coats should have a combined thickness of 100 microns, or about 0.1 millimeters. (For reference, a strand of human hair is about 50 microns wide). Aberrations in paint thickness of as little as 10 microns can cause problems in both the look and performance of the car.
Until recently, Toyota’s workflow for ensuring that those micron measurements were spot-on was very old-school. “It was like the paper patterns you would use for making clothes,” says Koichi Kayano, project manager of Toyota’s Information Management Planning Department within its Engineering Data Control and Management Division. Each car would be overlaid with sheets of paper covered in 500 holes, and then an ultrasonic gauge would be used to ensure that the paint was the correct thickness.
“The problems were twofold,” says Kayano. “First, it was very time-consuming to make these pieces of paper in the first place. We also needed to reposition these pieces of paper every time we fine-tuned the coating.”
Enter the Microsoft Hololens, augmented-reality smart glasses capable of overlaying holograms on top of what the viewer sees. Instead of carefully applying the cardboard to each car, a tester could slip on a Hololens, which superimposed 500 dots in the same positions as the paper’s holes, and test for paint thickness.
“This improvement — this kaizen — meant we were able to eliminate the time to place the piece of paper on the car,” says Kayano. A process that used to require one day and two employees now takes just four hours for one employee to complete.
Kayano sees augmented reality being used throughout the Toyota manufacturing process, but it also represents something he’s spent decades thinking about. “I have been working on using digital data for engineering for 20 years,” he says. “It was my dream to be able to see in the real world what I had seen on the computer screen. Hololens was actually a dream come true for me.”
The Rebirth of Google Glass on the Factory Floor
AGCO, an agricultural equipment manufacturer that produces everything from tractors to forage equipment, had started to use its plant in Jackson, Minnesota as a test bed for using the internet of things to provide more information to its employees, particularly since the Jackson plant was where AGCO built highly complex custom agricultural equipment. “I call them snowflakes,” says Peggy Gulick, director of business process improvement at AGCO. “Every tractor or sprayer that comes down the line is different than the one before it.”
At first, this meant that work orders for a new piece of equipment coming down the line would be inspected on stationary computer monitors, but this meant employees were often walking back and forth between the monitors and what they were working on, wasting steps and time. In an effort to eliminate this back-and-forth, employees were given tablets meant for the factory floor. But tablets had a major flaw: Workers needed to have both hands free to work on machinery. Not only was holding onto the tablets a safety issue, it also meant workers would set the tablets down wherever was handy, leading to a lot of dropped tablets.
Gulick began to look into using Glass for Enterprise, an effort by Alphabet, the holding company that owns Google, to use what had been sold to consumers as Google Glass for business applications. She quickly found a lot to like. Workers were able to keep both hands free while using Glass. They could use their voice to control Glass, whether to take pictures to send to a supervisor or to go back a page on their work orders.
“If you drop and break a pair of Glasses, the worst-case scenario, it’s $1,500. If you buy a rugged tablet and drop it on the floor and run over it with a tractor, it’s $4,000. So, that was a pretty easy business case to bring to my leadership,” says Gulick. A pilot program began with just six pair of Glasses, and the results were encouraging from the start. “Our measurements came back in at 30 percent process improvement, 50 percent reduction in training time, 30 percent improvement in quality processing time,” says Gulick. They quickly upped their order to 100 pairs of Glasses.
Now, line workers at the Jackson plant spend much of their days wearing Glasses. “For our line workers, we consider Glass to be a part of their uniform. They wear gloves, they wear a helmet, they wear ear protection, and they have Glass,” says Gulick. “We really consider it to be a 40-hour-a-week tool. With 12 to 13 hours of battery life, they can easily make it.” Workers charge their smart glasses overnight, and put them back on in the morning.
Now, many new workers hired by AGCO are being trained to use Glass, whether their specific job will require them to use the smart glasses or not. What’s more, Gulick says the ability of Glass to provide easy-to-follow instructions in a worker’s field of view changes who they hire. “You don’t have to hire a mechanic or someone [with] that background,” says Gulick. She foresees AGCO being able to use augmented-reality smart glasses for training and on-the-floor oversight that will significantly expand the labor pool the company hires from. “The untapped workforce in manufacturing is women.”
A host of other companies beyond Microsoft and Alphabet have developed niches for augmented-reality smart glasses within the industrial world. Epson has built smart glasses designed for use by professional drone operators which allow them to keep an eye on the drone and also see what the drone itself is “seeing” in a single glance. Vuzix smart glasses are designed to help keep supply-chain information in front of workers’ eyes while they’re in the warehouse. The DAQRI Smart Helmet helps architects and designers visualize their work in 3-D space.
Who knows when the futuristic world of consumer smart glasses promised by the first Google Glass ads will come? Major innovations in hardware, connectivity speed, style, and comfort will all be required before you can pick up a pair of shades that will give you Terminator vision. But in order for those innovations to be achieved, there has to be a context in which smart glasses are both useful and economical. And for right now, that’s the factory.