PTC - Augmented Reality as the Internet of Things for People in UK’s Manufacturing Industry

In December 2019, SITSI Group was offered a look inside the Industrial Innovation Global Series presented jointly in London by US-based software and services company PTC, and the Financial Times. PTC gave its view on how UK manufacturers are adapting to remain competitive in an age driven by digital technologies.

To give a bit of background, PTC is a company with over 30 years of experience with a significant track record in understanding and transferring its digital knowledge, which is helping customers harness digital data in the physical world.

The company has around two hundred employees in the UK, serving thousands of customers. Large clients include BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, and Powersystems, while equally catering to smaller companies with the likes of Stannah Stairlifts as customers.

To provide concrete examples, PTC has helped BAE Systems handle the complexity of fitting out the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth through augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), and the Internet of Things (IoT) in a similar fashion as the company does for Beneteau, a French sail and motorboat manufacturer, where it is possible to fully customize a vessel’s interior using AR.

Additionally, Rolls Royce and Powersystems are using PTC technologies to tackle the aging workforce dilemma through, again, AR/VR and IoT for guidance in cases such as training, disassembly, repairs, etc. Furthermore, Stannah Stairlifts is using AR technology for things such as positioning a lift in the customers’ property and space measurements, while connected to PTC’s ThingWorx Industrial IoT platform for rapid development and deployment of applications and AR experiences.

PTC sees AR as IoT for people. While AR is relatively new for PTC, stemming from its acquisition of Vuforia back in 2015/16, it accounted for 7% of its sales revenue in 2018, 4% in 2017, and 2% in 2016. The AR business for PTC is rapidly expanding with a growth rate of 80% going forward, according to James Heppelmann, President and CEO of PTC. (Please also visit SITSI Group’s evaluation of PTC’s AR platform in our innovation radar)

For Heppelmann, a truly connected worker would leverage smart or semi-smart glasses such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, merging digital information into sight and sound. Think of AR in the context of a digital thread, producing a holistic view of an asset's data across its product lifecycle. IoT data from the physical world would be accessible into a digital view, i.e., a compressor that is about to malfunction will, through predictive maintenance capabilities (sensor-flagged issues), alert frontline workers before it malfunctions. By using a digital twin, the worker can quickly identify the deteriorating part(s) and take necessary steps to prevent downtime – this technology is, for instance, already being applied at Shell’s Pernis refinery in Rotterdam (Netherlands), which monitors pipelines using 50,000 sensors that generate 100,000 measurements a minute leveraging preventive maintenance of 160,000 kilometers of pipelines.

Over the next five years, PTC envisions connected workers to be 30-50% more productive while reducing errors by 60-90%. These technologies will counter issues arising with an aging workforce or a lack of skills, where a worker can move from job A to job B without undergoing intensive training. Additionally, with the rise of 5G connectivity, real-time access to large data sets will improve performance with lower latency, making AR that much more efficient.

It will be interesting to see to what extent a wider adoption of AR and IoT across the value chain will impact manufacturing companies in the UK. As a pointer, think of:

  • Manufacturing / Operations - Maintenance work instructions, operator & assembly work instructions, augmented operator manuals
  • Service / Support - Guided work instructions, service inspection & verification, remote expertise - a combination of AR and VR, and customer self-service
  • Training - Knowledge capture & transfer, just-in-time training, expert coaching, and safety & security

Additionally, companies not willing or unable to invest heavily due to budget pressures and constrictions will be able to retrofit legacy machines with sensors, yielding new data, such as pre-emptive maintenance requirements.

What’s more, the importance of data is significant not only for maintenance requirements and preventing costly downtimes but also for new business challenges and business models. There’s available and accessible data, unavailable data, and then there’s historical data, which could be very valuable. For instance, historical data that can be reanalyzed and retested using new technologies such as AI/ML or visually displayed in a more effective manner coupled with AR offers huge potential as the historical pool of data can now be connected. These opportunities can contribute to the creation of new business models and revenue streams.

However, each company is unique in the sense that with these new technologies, it is important to identify which digital tools are most suited, how to integrate them for the benefit of your frontline workers and customers, and how to adapt new technologies to your business model. For best results, partnering with companies with a proven track record of success is critical to avoid costly mishaps.

SITSI Group expects investments in AR/VR and IoT technologies to increase over the next couple of years, not limited to this vertical alone. Companies seeking to deploy the technologies mentioned in this blog are advised to find a suitable technology partner for their digital journey, with the capability to tailor digital tools to your business needs, as well as engaging your C-Suite, frontline workers, and end-users to deliver the best results.

For further information, please also see our global company profile about PTC, our PTC company profile specifically for PTC ThingWorx and Vuforia as well as our blog post on the PTC LiveWorx event in Boston back in 2019.

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