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Training the workforce of the future with Augmented Reality


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By Vikas Puri, Director - Business Development, Mobiliya, a QuEST Global Company

As the Director - Business Development,Mobiliya, a QuEST Global company, Vikas Puri is responsible for building Mobiliya’s business presence across markets in South East Asia, India and Middle East. He has more than 20 years of work experience in engineering and software solutions, having a valuable exposure across segments ranging from Software, Electronics, Automotive, Enterprise and Government / Defence. At Mobiliya, he leads the company’s foray as a solutions partner to large enterprises for digital transformation in the region. He has been involved in digital solutions across various industries, such as healthcare, power, automotive, FMCG, etc. He has worked with large, enterprise customers for various Augmented Reality solutions, including applications for training on complex industrial machinery.

After a near three-decade wait from when it was first invented, Augmented Reality (AR) is finally having its moment – enterprise investors are now seeing the technology’s viability in real world scenarios. In an insightful study ‘The Future of Jobs’ released in September, the World Economic Forum reported that 58% of respondent companies indicated that augmented and virtual reality would be a focus of investment by 2022. When analyzed sector wise, 71% of respondents belonged to the automotive, aerospace, supply chain and transport sectors. 

So what is spurring the uptake in enterprise AR, once the bastion of the military and gaming industries? (a la Pokémon Go)
For starters, in addition to the smart glass technology that first made inroads early in the decade, there has been a phenomenal increase in processing power of smart phones and tabs – today’s smartphones are at least ten times faster than their predecessors were. With every generation, the processing power only increases. All this rapid advancement in a short span has meant that smartphones can process AR applications in real-time.

Enterprises are also beginning to see potential for harnessing digital technologies such as AR for training on complex engineering equipment used for industrial applications. In high precision industries like aerospace and automotive, periodic worker training is imperative to enable the workforce maintain zero-error functioning on the shop floor and keep them apprised of advancements that come with technology disruption. Given the dwindling and ageing workforce, developing mission critical training modules become all the more significant to meet production schedules without affecting quality and accuracy.

Let us take FMCG manufacturing plants to illustrate this point. Assume that an FMCG plant has the capacity to produce around a 1000 units of a product per minute. Even a few minutes of breakdown of production, due to either human erroror delays in repairs, can result in significant economic losses. AR based digital training could have a substantial impact in cutting down such losses and thus justify the RoI.

An enterprise needs to make a choice over various digital technologies for training, and the options are often AR and VR. While VR is a clear winner where a complete virtual environment is best suited for training, AR is certainly preferred in the following scenarios:-

• When we don’t really want the trainee to disconnect from the real equipment and the real-world environment, during the training process. The trainee can learn a lot more while seeing the real equipment and working on it rather than interacting with the virtual one.

• If we don’t wish to invest in high cost VR devices. It is not just a cost of few devices, the big challenge is scalability when after a small pilot one has to deploy the training module over multiple locations. VR devices can train only one at a time. Larger numbers make them cost prohibitive.

By adding a digital element to the real world, AR enhances an individual’s learning capabilities. Workers standing over a piece of complex equipment, say the engine of a car or the propeller of a plane, with a smartphone or tab in hand or glass over the eye, can understand the nuances of appearance and functioning through a customized and interactive AR application. The combination of audio, video, 3D enhancement, image recognition and other elements embedded within the AR training module create a stimulating learning experience incorporating auditory, visual and tactile elements.

The use cases for AR in the training scenario tellingly demonstrate an enterprise’s return on investment. For instance, according to this article, at weapon manufacturer Lockheed Martin, AR for employee training reduced the assembly of F-35 aircraft, generally lasting years, by 30%. Unlike VR, where users disconnected from the real world, AR’s ‘phygital’ capabilities and simplicity of use have also shown to increase worker satisfaction and retention. Since several employees can share smartphones or tabs, AR is also more economical.

Given that, despite its considerable advantages, the following criteria are imperative to consider while developing an AR training module:

• Strategizing the programme –Identify the target group for training and the content to be trained on. Accordingly, pick up the technology and devices to be used for the digital training. This in turn affects the content design and creation strategy. Also, it is not just about the technology and content, the training needs to be well organized so that the trainee is sequentially taken through each aspect for better assimilation. This means development of a suitable app to manage the entire flow of training. The requirements of scalability are important considerations at this stage.

• Charting the development sequence – Building a scalable and updateable model is the best approach to implement AR in a workplace training setting. By beginning with a prototype or pilot, any inconsistencies or inadequacies can be addressed before expanding the scope of the training programme.

• Creating the AR content – Content development is always in close collaboration with the subject matter experts. It involves gathering deep understanding of standard operating procedures, user manuals and training material and developing content in an AR consumable format, which could be 3D models, 2D / 2D animations, videos or even step-by-step animation depicting a certain procedure.

• System integration and development – The development process involves building the software application which will dictate the flow of training and how content is managed and presented. The integration process involves putting together the entire application, integrating the content to it, integration with enterprise content management portal and enterprise ERP, etc.

• Deployment and support – In the final phase, the deployment would happen on the target devices (mobiles / tabs / smart glasses). There could also be requirement of cloud / on-premise deployment of server side of the application. Post deployment, there would be hand holding required for the adoption process, monitoring usage and any incremental product change.

While usually an AR project starts with a small, pilot deployment, scalability becomes an important factor as the project grows. Scalability could have various connotations, such as usability across multiple devices, addition of more modules, addition of content within modules, additions of more users with different roles / access, multiple language support, etc. To be able to manage such complexities, it is important to use a suitable software platform capable of addressing such challenges. Such platforms could enable online content upgrade or change as well as modular and more manageable approach to the project. These are available from a few niche companies with AR expertise, which they use to bring down cost and time of deployment of AR solutions, and manage them more efficiently thereafter.

Overall, the simplicity of use, the real-world connect and cost effectiveness of AR, vis-à-vis other new-age digital technologies, certainly makes it a strong contender for addressing the training needs of the workforce of the future.