When we think of virtual reality (VR), many of us still think back to the bulky, unflattering headsets found in video game arcades in the 1980s and 1990s. However, modern VR and augmented reality (AR) technology is more than a quirky arcade attraction, with it offering a wealth of benefits to food and beverage maintenance engineers. Here, George Walker, managing director of industrial VR specialist Novotek UK and Ireland, explains how VR could redefine industrial maintenance.
Industrial maintenance is a thorn in the side of every plant manager, regardless of sector and business size. It can be a costly, time-consuming process, but it is also one that is required if a plant's systems are to remain effective, efficient and even operational.
This is especially true for food and beverage plants, where even a momentary period of system downtime can result in lost production. For example, yogurt production lines must ensure that produce is kept at certain temperatures and handled in a certain time period to minimise the risk of spoilage. Downtime due to faulty or ineffective systems can result in an entire batch needing to be disposed of, often to the tune of thousands of pounds in lost profit.
It's for this reason that many plants have made improving the quality of maintenance a priority in recent years, with increased adoption of preventive or predictive maintenance practices. In fact, a 2018 survey found that predictive maintenance was in the top three technologies being adopted by UK manufacturers.
However, while incorporating predictive maintenance functionality into industrial automation systems is valuable in minimising the frequency of maintenance, there will be times when a maintenance engineer must head out to repair a system. Depending on the role of the equipment requiring maintenance and the nature of the maintenance itself, this period of planned downtime can still have a negative impact on production.
It's here that VR and AR technology are proving to be valuable tools in helping maintenance engineers repair equipment and systems faster and more effectively than ever before. Maintenance staff can use a VR headset, such as Microsoft HoloLens, or even just their mobile phones to see an augmented view of equipment, highlighting the performance data of individual components and the best way of accessing them.
For example, let's say that a dairy plant's manufacturing execution system highlights that a rotary evaporator, used to standardise the dry matter of milk in the early production stages, requires maintenance. As the evaporator consists of several components, a maintenance engineer could use AR to see a virtual representation of the components in the evaporator and identify which needs attending to.
This is only possible if the AR application can access the real-time operational data from the evaporator. In this instance, the engineer could use the AR functionality of PTC's ThingWorx 8 industrial internet of things (IIoT) platform, as provided by Novotek UK and Ireland. Working with experienced industrial software experts like Novotek means food and beverage companies get the right AR application for their plant, to ensure it works effectively.
By using a purpose-built AR application, the engineer can view real time system data from the ThingWorx IIoT platform and see which components are performing inefficiently. In this case, it could be that the evaporator's compressor requires lubrication. The engineer can then resolve this in the least disruptive way possible, minimising the impact that necessary maintenance has on production.
With this, we can see why VR and AR are far more than quirky technologies for industrial businesses. If used properly alongside an IIoT platform that supports predictive maintenance, they can help plant managers achieve the next level of industrial maintenance efficiency, where the unavoidable downtime associated with maintenance can be minimised to mere moments.