Endress+Hauser is venturing into the world of mixed reality: the combination of virtual elements and real surroundings are set to make the installation, operation and maintenance of measurement devices significantly easier.
Hooking up a level measuring device? “Not a problem,” according to Eric Birgel, as he puts on his HoloLens glasses. Suddenly he no longer merely sees the device in front of him, but also its digital twin superimposed above the instrument. A virtual menu pops up above it.
Eric Birgel clicks through it by tapping his thumb and index finger together. Red and blue lines now appear in front of his eyes and lead to the cable jack of the real-life device. The virtual screwdriver points at a real screw, while an arrow indicates the direction of rotation: “Wiring an instrument couldn’t be any easier,” Eric Birgel believes.
The software developer has a major goal: together with Product Manager Tanja Haag he wants to make the installation, maintenance and repair of measurement devices easier through the help of digital services. The duo has already created the SmartBlue app together with colleagues. The app provides customers with mobile access to measurement devices as well as diagnosis and process data.
They are currently working on the next step: developing mixed-reality applications for the FMR6x level device as part of the VisionBlue project. “The technology is incredibly versatile and will provide significant added value to companies,” Tanja Haag is convinced.
Two layers at a glance
Mixed reality is leading the operation and maintenance of measurement devices into a new dimension by making it intuitive. “By means of mixed reality, abstract technical knowledge and available data can be linked and shown graphically,” explains Eric Birgel.
To achieve this, mixed reality combines the real environment with a computer-aided perception. Image-processing algorithms allow virtual elements to be placed in a room through mixed-reality glasses such as Microsoft’s HoloLens.
Unlike augmented reality, the user is not only able to see these three-dimensional elements but can also interact and control them using gestures – just like in a computer game. “Up until now, mixed reality has not been used to its full extent in industrial applications – they mostly work with information boxes. In contrast, we want to simulate every work step,” Eric Birgel emphasizes.
Many possible applications
To develop convincing solutions for users, several customers were asked at the start of the project what they would like to use mixed reality for. The responses included training, installation and maintenance, with the transfer of knowledge being the common denominator. “In many manufacturing companies the turnover rates are high, while professionals are scarce,” Tanja Haag explains. “Mixed reality allows devices to be operated with little prior knowledge – and experts can work even more efficiently.”
Eric Birgel therefore implemented wiring instructions as the first application. This was followed by a setup function that allows employees to parametrize the measuring device by marking the maximum and minimum level of a tank with two virtual disks. “Previously the technicians first had to carry out complicated calculations,” says Eric Birgel.
Another function displays the instruments’ maintenance status with virtual signal lights in different colors that hover above the devices. The app is also able to identify the fastest way to the measuring points, depending on the situation. “The customers were impressed by the fact that the route automatically changes if it suddenly becomes blocked,” Eric Birgel reports.
It is no surprise that the chemical industry, for example, is extremely interested in the new technology. “Production downtimes in large-scale plants are very expensive, which is why the potentials arising from efficient maintenance are especially prominent in this field,” says Tanja Haag. The VisionBlue functions could help maintenance staff troubleshoot any issues themselves in future without having to acquire additional specialist skills. “We will also be setting up a database of technical faults to allow for automated diagnosis,” Eric Birgel explains.
The application will be able to identify the problem through the symptoms entered by the user and then provide instructions to solve it. Just like all the other VisionBlue functions it will be fed with data from Endress+Hauser’s IIoT ecosystem. A remote-call function is also in the pipeline: in this case, thanks to a tablet PC camera, an external specialist will be able to see exactly what the employee on site sees, and provide suitable support.
One approach, many platforms
In order to meet as many customer requirements as possible, there are plans to develop the mixed-reality application for various mobile devices: complex functions such as navigation for the HoloLens and more simple applications such as remote support for tablets and smartphones, which have now become commonplace in the industry. The expansion of VisionBlue to further instrument groups is also envisaged. “We will provide our customers with a versatile and adaptable product package in future,” Tanja Haag is convinced.