In 2020, digital industrial tech vendors tried to sell the following story: “You need me now more than ever”. Was it true? Maybe, sort of. For most industrial companies, 2020 ‘twas not the season of fat budgets for technology. But in certain categories, the pandemic accelerated deployments.
In a previous article, I elaborated on some of the categories that did indeed benefit from the pandemic. At the top of this list was industrial augmented reality (AR) solutions, which witnessed massive demand and broad enterprise roll-outs over the course of the year. 2020 was the year that industrial AR went from pilot purgatory to need-to-have.
A primary AR use case that gained traction was remote support: AR remote support tools enable a remote expert to guide a local (theoretically non-expert) technician through performing some type of task, generally equipment/process-focused. This could include installing machinery, training on a new process, guiding through routine maintenance, or helping to troubleshoot and fix equipment.
Imagine a food & beverage producer that has factories around the world full of specialized equipment. For some of the most complex systems, there is a finite number of experts who can maintain the equipment. Suddenly, there are major travel restrictions, and these experts can’t travel to deal with issues in the factories. You can imagine how AR remote support tools would be extremely helpful.
In March of 2020, I hosted a webinar with my friend Goran Kukic, Chief Innovation Technology Officer for Nestle. Nestle was ahead of the curve rolling out remote support solutions at the beginning of the pandemic. 16 minutes into the webinar, you can hear Goran explain that over the years, his group had done POCs with 5 remote support vendors, but struggled to deploy this technology into the factories. The operations groups always had different priorities.
When travel restrictions began, the Connected Factory Council reached out to Goran’s team and said they needed a solution in place ASAP. Goran’s team chose the best vendor they had trialed, negotiated a full commercial agreement, packaged the product, and rolled out the solution globally to all the Nestle factories in 5 days. Goran said: “This is why you need to systematically invest into new capabilities and technologies since you never know when you’re going to need them”. More info about the Nestle roll-out here.
In some ways, remote support tools are commoditized – Zoom or Teams can provide a decent amount of the functionality. But the most fully-featured AR remote support tools provide additional functionality including the ability to point/gesture, overlay tools, freeze & draw, and even insert the remote expert’s hands into the field of view (but Zoom, Teams should increasingly have these features, so vendors will have to be creative to continue to differentiate).
Many remote support vendors are software-only vendors who support a range of existing AR devices. The majority of industrial AR is accomplished on phones and tablets, so most vendors support Android and iOS devices. Phones and tablets will always be among the dominant devices leveraged by industrial AR solutions, since they are the devices that everyone already has, thus not requiring additional hardware investment.
There are several dedicated AR hardware providers. At the top of the list (at least in terms of brand recognition) is Microsoft with its HoloLens device. The initial HoloLens device was released a few years ago – most industrial companies have been playing around with a handful of them, but I’ve seen precious few enterprise roll-outs of the HoloLens devices. Most industrial users decided the original HoloLens was too clunky for industrial use cases. The HoloLens 2 saw a limited release in late 2020, and it’s supposed to be better-optimized for industrial operations, but the jury is out on whether it will meet the industrial spec.
RealWear has developed a headset well-suited for industrial use cases, and we see a lot of scale roll-outs of the RealWear gear. Vuzix also has a compelling industrial headset. Those three – HoloLens, RealWear, and Vuzix – are the main AR devices we see in play at large industrial companies (in addition of course to phones and tablets).
While these device developers have their own AR software applications, many customers use AR software applications from different vendors. This is a common trend – the device developers specialize in hardware, and then dedicated software developers build more effective applications to be used on these devices. There are many categories of AR software applications aside from remote support, and I’ll elaborate on them in a future article.
Remote support software developers and industrial AR device manufacturers should finally begin to see a pay-off in a space that had lagged for years. The pandemic will be the rocket fuel to accelerate some big exits, and investors will finally be happy as well. And the real winner will be the world’s industrial companies – they’ll reap the benefits of more mature AR solutions, and in turn novel operational efficiencies that will last far beyond the end of the pandemic.