Overlaying the digital atop a real-world setting
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Overlaying the digital atop a real-world setting

Elmira’s Tri-Mach Group is incorporating augmented reality into its customer support and training processes. [Submitted]

At the Tri-Mach Group plant in Elmira, the future is here.

A manufacturer of stainless steel industrial material-handling equipment for the likes of the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries, the company recently launched Tri-Mach Vision, which is a project to incorporate the hardware and software needed to use augmented reality in their training and customer troubleshooting processes.

The impetus for the project was a desire to help customers while cutting down on service calls, says Joshua Bailey, product innovation manager at Tri-Mach.

“We had a few projects where we were having to send people all over North America to troubleshoot stuff that, when you got there, was maybe not that hard to actually fix, but the customers can’t describe or maybe don’t know the intel of the equipment as well as we do. So we started looking about how we can maybe use some of the new technology that’s out there to serve this industry,” he explained.

The company has been developing the use of this technology for about a year, said Bailey. They bought a Microsoft HoloLens 2, which is a piece of hardware people can wear on their heads to layer augmented reality over what they see in real life.

Now, instead of Tri-Mach sending an employee to a customer’s plant somewhere across the continent, customers with a headset can wear it, and stream what they are seeing to Tri-Mach staff. Employees back in Elmira can speak with the customer in real time, and overlay what the customer is seeing on their headset with augmented reality, such as arrow indicators, to show the customer what needs to be done.

The same technology can be used for Tri-Mach’s in-house technicians.

“Our millwrights can have them in their truck with the rest of their tools,” said Bailey.

With the headsets, Tri-Mach’s millwrights will be able to show engineers back in Elmira exactly what the issues are and receive real-time remote assistance.

The company will also use the technology to train employees.

Russel Foubert is the chair of the School of Applied Computer Science and Information Technology at Conestoga College, and involved with the Augmented Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab. He says more and more companies are using augmented reality and virtual reality in their processes, and that augmented reality will have the same impact on daily life, especially in industry, as the smartphone.

“Many of us in the field would kind of liken it to, ‘do you remember a time just before the iPhone was released? What was your life like back then?’ ‘Do you remember a time when you had to get on the internet through dial-up? And then there was a time where every computer in your house was just connected? It’s going to be very noteworthy,” he said.

“We’ll look back and say ‘yeah, do you remember 10, 20 years ago when the average worker in a facility couldn’t just look through a phone or look through their augmented safety glasses and look around and see reminders about safety hazards or see production totals?’”

And while every company will eventually determine the best use of augmented reality for their processes, Foubert admits there are considerations that employers will need to make as they do.

“A lot of these technologies, they somewhat rely on people having a known amount of capability with their eyeballs and their vision. But for instance, if you had issues with red-green colour blindness, for example, does that system take it into account?” he said.

Another consideration is that a significant portion of the population experiences sickness or discomfort when using augmented or virtual reality technologies. Privacy and security issues are also concerns, he noted.

“You’ve got to come back and say, ‘how do we know this technology is really, truly going to make the employee, the worker’s life at work better, more productive, etc.?’ It’s a very important question to answer and it is different for every company,” he said. “The most successful transitions that we’re seeing involve good buy-in from the production floor up.”

For now, Tri-Mach is launching their first use of augmented reality, and staff are looking forward to seeing where it will lead to.

“I think (people) should be excited about the boundaries of technology that companies within this region are pushing,” said Bailey. “Even outside of the Waterloo tech hub stuff, there are companies in and around Elmira that are pushing the boundaries of what wasn’t possible a year ago. Obviously, I’d like to think Tri-Mach is right there. But it’s kind of a neat feeling to know that this world-leading cutting-edge stuff is happening just down the street.”

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