Canadian Packaging

Augmented Reality for Packaging: Finally, a Make or Buy Decision?

February 4, 2021   by Harpak-ULMA Packaging




After building momentum for a decade, Digital Transformation is now front and center in many producers’ strategic discussions. The proof points are building for companies that adopt digital-centric production processes; marked improvements in flexibility, productivity, and final quality are persuasive.

Many use cases are cited for Digital Transformation, but one of the most intuitive and “sexiest” is Augmented Reality (AR). Not surprising, as there is ample empirical evidence that visual training techniques produce better results and delivering real-time visual task guidance virtually guarantees faster learning curves and performance accuracy. As is typical of most complex emerging technologies, the innovators and early adopters tend to be larger organizations that can assume the costs and risk that come with that territory, since they derive significant value at scale from even small or incremental improvements.

While many publicized AR success stories fit that profile today, an increasingly broader cross-section of producers are taking a serious look. It’s easy to see why. Executives are enamored by AR’s use cases – the data points to 30%-60% productivity improvements, underscoring its dramatic impact on staff productivity and quality outcomes.

The question producers have to ask themselves now is how to approach implementation, and it’s finally a make or buy decision. We’ve discovered these key considerations for determining the best option.

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The required skillset for AR implementation

While it appears that the AR’s promise to improve productivity is attracting more and more attention, the question of how to create and deploy AR experiences remains a sticky wicket for most companies. Available technologies are essentially toolkits, meaning deployment is dependent on: defining the business use case(s), fielding an experienced team with the  requisite skill sets, defining financial criteria (budgets/ROI) and justifications, and project management.

Of these, access to the right resources tends to be the most important and often the most challenging aspect of deployment. Building AR experiences requires an essentially “new” skill set – one that mashes up the thinking of a UX Designer with the CAD skillset of an engineer – a very particular combination not readily available in today’s marketplace. A typical project will utilize:

  •  Software developers
  •  Graphic designers /3D modelers to transform engineering data into production-ready, user-facing graphics, and
  •  IoT software architects that guide data flows into the AR experience in a very specific manner to ensure experience scalability

Access to the right data

Data access is another consideration. Equipment-focused AR experiences rely on several factors: 3D CAD models (which often contain proprietary IP), specific engineering/operational data subsets, a strategy for IoT data acquisition, controls automation experience, and an understanding of the users’ environment/context. Such competencies are not typically found in companies whose business focus is production. So, like many other manufacturing technology projects, producers turn to 3rd parties – the software publishers themselves or systems integrators – to pursue a “make” approach for deploying an AR solution.

This is a pragmatic, well-worn strategy for implementing complex solutions that fall outside the scope of your core business focus. If your use cases for AR span many aspects of production operations, it may also be the only viable alternative. But growing demand for AR-based training and work instructions will prompt OEM’s to pre-enable their platforms, giving producers a “buy” option. This turnkey approach not only accelerates market adoption, it makes sense on a number of levels.

An OEM’s ability to embrace AR

First, OEM’s own their 3D CAD models – the very basis of equipment-focused Virtual-see-Thru (VST) AR. VST is the most commonly deployed version of AR offered today and relies on a basic digital twin model of the machine to display overlays and animations. A big advantage of working with VST is its ability to provide AR experiences via mobile and laptop devices, in addition to smart glasses. The extra cost and management of more expensive, specialized hardware may not be justified in some situations. For example, when used in a packaging application, operators or maintenance staff may only utilize AR “on demand”: during changeovers, servicing routines, performance monitoring, or initial training. Each of these by the way are easily identified, specific and justifiable business use cases.

OEM’s also author instructions for operating and servicing their machines, and architect the platform’s automation controls design, a key factor in enabling both machine and IoT sourced real-time data that feed an AR experience.

At Harpak-ULMA, the decision to re-platform our lines around Rockwell Automation’s Integrated Architecture greatly improved ease of data accessibility, compatibility with PTC’s VuforiaTM application (a market leader in AR), and scalability (affordability) of AR experiences across similar lines. The benefits of a homogenous controls and automation platform environment is in many ways analogous to Apples’ iOS operating system – it simplifies and automates the ability to share data, configurations, and settings across the platform. It’s also worth noting that this approach also results in widespread, competitive spare parts and maintenance sourcing for customers. Finally, OEM’s are able to leverage their investment in the specialized skill sets AR requires, adding to the affordability of a pre-packaged solution.

The easier, faster, and more affordable route to AR

For all of the reasons cited above, plus the ability to improve our own support paradigm, Harpak-ULMA’s product roadmap embraces AR. It is a natural aspect of our overall strategy for delivering smart, connected machines that help ensure packaging will not be the weak link in our customers digital production thread. From remote support to pre-built AR experiences for operators, supervisors, and maintenance teams, we believe the “buy” option will make it easier, faster, and more affordable for customers to realize the promised productivity of AR.


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