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The use of Augmented Reality (AR) technology is regarded by most as still being a novelty insofar as manufacturing applications are concerned—even though there are many examples of how such technology has become a part of our daily lives.

The most spectacular of AR examples exists in mission-critical applications, such as the helmet of a fighter pilot. Many millions of dollars have been and continue to be invested to provide the ultimate control and feedback to pilots in order to maximize engagement opportunities. With prices heading towards a half-million dollars per unit produced, very few of us will ever get the opportunity to see and feel the ultimate AR experience. This application of AR illustrates the current problem with the technology: the very best can only be achieved when significant customization is done. In almost every AR demo performed in the real world today, a significant amount of custom engineering preparation has to be made prior to each demo.

This “cost of ownership” overhead cannot be absorbed into mainstream manufacturing. The requirement for success for AR in manufacturing is that the technology works seamlessly with existing state-of-the-art tools, with no discernable, additional overhead. The use of AR today in heads-up displays in automobiles is a great example. Here, the ultimate fighter pilot experience is muted to a simple display of traditional dashboard information, in a far more convenient place. Regular drivers now enjoy the facilities of heads-up displays, without any requirement for additional training. It has to be said however, that for younger drivers, who have experienced such digital information technology as part of the video-gaming environment for many years, this is easier to get used to than for other demographics.

To date, the gap between customized AR demos and real-world adoption is being crossed, with the most progressive digital MES systems now offering AR functionality, as a manageable step from the use of regular state of the art electronic documentation. Care should be taken when evaluating such technologies to ensure that the true cost of ownership for the AR solution does not get hidden in the sales process. Marketing is certainly leading the way currently with this technology in most cases, so careful selection of practical technology that is focused on the specific need of the operation, without significant operational cost, is paramount.