small glasses, big effect
Why AR-Glasses bring the model factory a big step forward and vice versa
Try out tomorrow's technology today - ideally even the way it will be used later. Many entrepreneurs may well dream of this. The Industry 4.0 Research and Application Centre at the University of Potsdam makes it possible. In the cyberphysical facility, model factories of all kinds can be easily simulated and also tested up close. The researchers around the business information scientist Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Gronau are constantly integrating new technological developments in order to recognise their potential - and develop them further. For some time now nxtBase has also been part of this. The start-up has specialised in Augmented Reality (AR) and has developed an eco-system for Smart Glasses, which ensures two things: free hands and always the right information in view.
A worker is standing at a large machine in a modern factory building, production is running at full speed. Suddenly a red indicator lights up, the plant stops and the entire production chain of the highly efficient factory comes to a standstill. The factory worker grabs his head. Every minute that the belts stop costs a lot of money. But don't panic! He adjusts the display of his Smart Glass, calls up the machine's maintenance list by voice command and works through it. Shortly afterwards the display turns green, and production resumes less than ten minutes after the interruption.
A scenario like this is no longer a dream of the future, says Jörg Jonas-Kops, founder of nxtBase: "We have developed a system that is essentially based on dynamic checklists that are processed and always brings the right information to the display. It doesn't matter whether it's about the maintenance of machines, warehouse logistics or production control". Picking lists in the warehouse, maintenance plans or step-by-step instructions for repair, cleaning or even operating machines are part of it. Bringing forward-looking technology into the demanding everyday life of industry is the aim of nxtBase: "We do not use fancy VR glasses with which people can walk around the hall in a cool way and which nobody needs in the end," says Jonas-Kops. "The Glasses have to offer real added value." The current model looks like a baseball cap, packed full of technology, and is equipped with a small display. This is hardly bigger than a thumbnail and is folded down with a bracket like a headset microphone and placed underneath the eye so that the field of vision remains clear. At the same time, the display is mirrored into the eye so that it is easy to switch between the field of view and the display. But the real highlight is that the glasses respond to voice commands. This leaves the hands free - a huge plus for the use of the glasses in industry. While tablets have been hailed as the ultimate in the digital revolution, smart glasses could finally bring information to where it is supposed to go: to the eye. The system has already proven its worth, as Jonas-Kops proudly tells us: at Airbus, for example, where engineers work through a 250-point checklist in production control, or at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, where production facilities are cleaned and rebuilt in a three-shift system - and both have to be documented step by step. "The glasses have to function precisely and reliably in continuous use, only then are they suitable for industrial use".
For each customer, the glasses are adapted to the processes and tasks in which they are to provide support. The special thing about nxtBase: Your system comes - quite literally - in a suitcase and does not have to be elaborately integrated into the customer's IT and infrastructure systems. "That makes it much easier for the customers," says Jonas-Kops. "This means they can test the glasses directly during ongoing production." But what about the new processes that are to be integrated or set up together with the Smart Glasses? This is where the Industry 4.0 Research and Application Centre comes in. Because here the nxtBase glasses can be tested in virtually any number of factories, processes and contexts. Even those that do not yet exist. The cooperation arose from an exchange about AR instruments in the industry. A little later the university scientists integrated the AR system from nxtBase into the application centre. What followed was enthusiasm on both sides. "This is already a cool high-tech landscape," says Jörg Jonas-Kops. "The cubes that drive around there, the system that can be used to simulate any factory scenario. No one has ever seen anything like it." The system was created by Norbert Gronau and his team in 2010 in a research project with the aim of being able to virtually test any number of production processes as a virtual factory plant. It still does this today, but now even more. It now serves as a universal interactive learning factory as well as an industry 4.0 laboratory.
For Jonas-Kops, the advantages of the application centre are obvious: "Here various scenarios can be simulated in which the nxtBase glasses can show their strengths. If nxtBase wants to demonstrate to a business partner how its Smart Glass works, Jonas-Kops and his team can do this in one place - and at the same time complex. "We have embedded the glasses in our system so that they can be tested without any problems in the most diverse application scenarios - in the warehouse, as an assistance system during the maintenance of machines", explains Dr. Sander Lass, who heads the factory software working group at Prof. Gronau's chair. Users can not only try out how the glasses are used, but also how the connection to other industrial systems works. "We have designed a showcase in which the users run through a scenario that creates a real aha effect," says Sander Lass. "Maintenance with the tablet was all well and good, but to do a checklist on the machine using the Smart Glass and voice control, most people say 'Wow!
In addition, the application centre provides important feedback from other partners in the field, who also put the nxtBase spectacles through their paces during training sessions - virtually as a sideline: Is the voice control able to understand Bavarian? Do the checklists and commands work reliably? Is the hardware intuitive to use? And last but not least: What does the smart glass have to be like and what does it have to be able to do so that users accept it and really use it? "In tests with earlier AR glasses, we have found that models that are not suitable for everyday use lie in the corner after 15 minutes," says Sander Lass. "This makes the devices an expensive misunderstanding." For this reason, Jörg Jonas-Kops and his team are constantly working to improve their system - and are in close contact with the manufacturers of the associated hardware to do so. Smaller, lighter, better, the glasses are to be made smaller, to make them indispensable. A real step forward was the integration of voice control, which is now standard at nxtBase - and was tested in the application centre. "We use perhaps 40 commands - but those in 15 languages. And yes, it can even speak Bavarian," says the start-up founder and laughs.
In the meantime nxtBase and UP scientists are working together on the further development of the system. "We are a small company and do not have our own research department," explains Jonas-Kops. "Thanks to the cooperation with the university researchers, we can make up for that." After all, Smart Glass should always be able to do more: A torch for inspecting machine parts in dark corners? No problem. A camera that takes photos for documentation and displays them on the screen? Done. Sensors that feed temperature, lengths and other data into the system via Bluetooth? Already reality. "We ask the questions together, see what could work - and then try it out directly. Research could not be much faster or more application-oriented. The cooperation partners are currently working on making the system suitable for mass production. "Up to now, many of our customers have been using a few glasses from the case," explains Jonas-Kops. "But at some point, large companies want to integrate not one but 1,000 pairs of glasses into their systems. A dream! But also a challenge, because for this they need a device management system that records and controls who is currently using which device, what data is to be sent from there to where - and much more. A solution for this is currently being tested in the application centre. The creators of nxtBase and the scientists at the University of Potsdam are now putting their cooperation in research and development on an official footing: in a joint research project sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy.
© Matthias Zimmermann