As natural as a phone call

Augmented reality has so far been an issue more for retailers, but now virtual reality is also being used in the packaging industry – particularly in service, and increasingly in engineering.

von Wolfgang Borgfeld

Augmented reality (AR) is increasingly supporting mechanics, operators and maintenance staff in working on machinery – for example, when resetting a machine. The employee wears glasses that project the correct settings in their field of vision. “This means that you no longer need books from which you have to search for dozens of values. This is really very useful,” says Michael Wratschko, Customer Service Group Leader at Optima Nonwovens. AR is accordingly used primarily to support service and maintenance in networks of large manufacturers with many users, as noted by the experts at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging (IVV) in Dresden. Solutions make sense whenever the user’s employees are working alone on a packaging machine. Something which is already helpful in daily work becomes even more valuable if problems arise. If a component – for example an electric motor – fails, the manufacturer’s technicians and engineers can see what the employee is seeing on site. The employee can then be sent information via the AR glasses and use it immediately, since they have their hands free.

Open communication leads to success

The technology has been around for a long time, but it has only increasingly been used in practice in recent years. Before looking at using AR, a packaging machine manufacturer has to ask where the technology can really help. “These are tools, and you need to know what they’re going to be used for. The service provider who is designing an augmented reality solution isn’t in a position to assess this, and this is why it’s important for all participants to talk openly about problems in production or machine maintenance,” says Lukas Oehm, group leader for digitisation and technical assistance systems at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV, outlining the requirements for an appropriate AR application. Far too often, queries are too general, and then service providers have to ask exactly where the problem lies. Does the technician have to have their hands free on site? Or is it just a question of sharing information with visual support, which can be done with Skype and Tablet?

Fraunhofer IVV colleague Sebastian Carsch adds that the big challenge is to prepare and update machine data, take a close look at all interfaces, integrate the personnel into the processes, and identify the added value of the solution. This is very time and cost intensive. At Bobst Meerbusch, a supplier of equipment and services for substrate processing, the technology has been tested for practical suitability with selected customers worldwide over the past two years, and the company will be rolling it out in Germany in the coming weeks. Experience showed that the new service means a change not only for the customer but also for the manufacturer, as Manfred Bauer, Product Specialist Connected Services reports. “The expert sits virtually directly in front of the machine. They need not only technical knowledge, but also a clear view of the operation of complex packaging lines”. And the ability to work in a team, because remote experts and operators on site must harmonise well.

Different culture, different understanding of processes

This aspect has to be taken into account, not least in an international context. The Fraunhofer IVV researchers emphasise that in practice technical aids alone are not sufficient for successful support in service and operation. Outside Europe, there is often a different understanding of the process, and this must be taken into account when using augmented reality. But technology also has its pitfalls. There is general agreement that as a matter of principle there are no off-the-shelf end devices that are suitable for industrial use. That starts with the software and ends with the viewer. Even if the question “What kind of information has to be displayed and how?” has been satisfactorily solved, operators at the machine need to get used to the projection of images in the viewer. “But anyone who has tried it will accept the new tool,” says Bobst expert Bauer, encouraging users.

However, viewers are still a problem, and not only because of the limited field of vision: their ergonomics are not optimal. “You can work with them happily for an hour, then things get difficult in terms of weight and remaining battery life,” says Michael Wratschko of Optima. Although there are good solutions for the consumer market because of their light weight, these are not yet suitable for industrial application.

Data transmission as the most important bottleneck

Another difficult issue is the bandwidth for data transmission. In Europe and North America, this is largely stable and allows the required data transmission rate. In Asia, however, it fluctuates between outstanding and difficult, in Optima’s experience. “But even in Germany we still have plants with poor connections,” says Wratschko. This makes cooperation with the customer’s IT system all the more important. “The data viewer needs a good local network connection in the factory hall. The important thing here is for the IT department to provide the necessary services for operating the viewer near the machines,” Manfred Bauer emphasises. However, he is convinced that augmented reality will soon be as natural as a phone call to the service department – particularly when “more standardized terminal devices, such as data viewers, tablets, etc, are available that can be used industrially, hopefully as a standard.

While training and education are a possibility for augmented reality with installed machines, they are already current practice with virtual reality on systems in the design stage. Here, machines can be completely virtualised using existing CAD data. Based on this, VR designers store all the steps in changing the format parts. These are presented through generally understandable symbols with arrows, colours and movements. For example, Uhlmann Pac-Systeme has developed a virtual training system on these lines as a pilot application for format changeover on the Bec 300 blister packaging line. In digital engineering, comprehensive display of machines or entire packaging lines is becoming increasingly important as a tool. Bausch+Ströbel notes that this makes the development and design process for packaging machines considerably simpler. For example, the company, which makes filling and packaging machines for the pharmaceutical industry, offers virtual reality positioning of the system to be manufactured in the assigned area, making possible optimal integration of utility lines. In addition, ergonomic studies with virtual operating personnel show whether operators can subsequently perform their work in a comfortable posture or if all important machine parts can be reached through glove ports.

The Virtual Reality Centre at the Schwäbisch-Hall Technology Centre, established by the Packaging Valley association and managed by Itek since 2015, has the same goal. There, machine manufacturers and operators can see how their new plant can be installed in a hall, how new components can be integrated into existing plant, and how access points and routes need to be designed in the plant. Uwe Hertweck, Mechanical Design/Virtual Solutions Development at Itek, observes that users of packaging machines in the pharmaceutical, food and cosmetics industries are increasingly requesting VR presentations. Wherever process reliability and process control are concerned, VR can help, particularly if machines or components have to be integrated into existing infrastructures.

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