UK well placed to help make mainstream XR use a reality

Technologies: Extended Reality

Above: Credit: Gorodenkoff |

The use of Extended Reality in manufacturing is growing quickly and the UK is well-positioned to be a global leader in its application, but the technology is still considered to be nascent and deployments remain mainly the preserve of larger companies.

Tom Spencer

Above: PTC has joined forces with the Materials Processing Institute (MPI), a research and innovation centre serving global steel and materials organisations, to explore the potential of AR at its Normanton Plant in Teesside. Credit: MPI

Above: A HoloLens headset being used by operatives at AMRC Cymru for the assembly of ventilators. Credit: AMRC Cymru

The course of digital transformation places humans right at the centre of the horizon. Nowhere is this more explicitly the case than in the realm of extended reality (XR), the catch-all term for augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and virtual reality (VR).

Augmented reality uses a technology interface, most often a portable screen as part of a headset or tablet, but also includes (and sometimes in combination with) haptic feedback wearables, audio and even scent to overlay information onto the real world.

Mixed reality does a similar thing, but bridges to virtual constructs and overlays those onto the real world. Virtual reality meanwhile uses a headset to completely immerse the human into a virtual world that does not exist, or a virtual representation of one that does.

One of the largest deployments of AR to date was by VentilatorChallengeUK – the consortium of UK industrial, technology and engineering businesses which come together to produce much-needed medical ventilators.

We had engineers from the likes of Ford, Rolls-Royce, Smiths Aerospace, GKN; a very diverse skills base. How could we retrain them, under the constraints of the pandemic, to produce ventilators?” explains Rab Scott, Professor of Industrial Digitalisation at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and a key figure in VentilatorChallengeUK.

The answer lay in creating a hands-free training system that integrated remote support and validation using PTC Vurofia AR software and Microsoft Hololens. The result was the use of 80 Hololens devices that used AR to train, validate and support engineers in the building of almost 13,500 ventilators in just 12 weeks.

Helping to de-risk, collaborate and optimise

This noble use-case aside, XR has been steadily gaining ground with a variety of applications across the UK. One area of particular interest concerns the use of VR to demonstrate and de-risk the business case of other technology projects.

Virtual reality is a very strong offering with the kind of modelling we do,” explains Ian McGregor of Emulate3D, which provides digital twin software for virtual commissioning, throughput simulation, and industrial demonstration.

You get a fantastic appreciation of real scale when you are inside the model, and we saw it as a great way to prove the capabilities of our system,” he continues. “We then realised that we could also interact with the model in really useful ways from inside this environment, including allowing the user to interact with browser-based control systems to run fault simulations that might be dangerous in real-life.”

XR is also being used to enhance and expand collaboration by bringing together expertise from different disciplines and locations into a virtual environment; much like how it was deployed by VentilatorChallengeUK.

Manchester-based Virtalis, whose VR solutions are used by manufacturing and engineering organisations around the world, boasts several UK customers. The automotive industry, often quick to seize on the potential of technology, is well represented by the likes of Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and Leyland Trucks all using VR to improve their processes.

Leyland Trucks’ use of VR, for example, means that two days before new truck variants were scheduled to go down the production line, shop floor workers were shown the model and taken through the 40-stage manufacturing process. This familiarised them with the new parts and their new roles in a single session.

Similarly, having a realistic 1:1 scale virtual model of Siemens Congleton is enabling teams to collaborate more effectively and communicate using a common visual language. It has played a huge part in optimising the use of space and flow of materials from incoming goods right through to dispatch of finished products. Having the flexibility to freely configure a layout virtually has reportedly realised efficiency savings of £300,000 through one optimisation exercise alone.

Training and gaming

Training is one use case which offers a potentially affordable entry point to the benefits of XR. AR can be used to record skills as engineers are performing them, saving them in the cloud for generations to come, almost like a virtual technical library. This helps businesses to retain the knowledge of outgoing staff which has been built up, in many cases, over several decades.

Additionally, the technology can prove vital in attracting new blood to the workforce. “Millennials expect to learn with tech,” says PTC’s Paul Haimes. Gamification of training via XR offers a way to improve the experience for learners and incentivise performance in the training environment.

Falmouth-based Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Group is using PTC’s XR suite of products to train its workforce.

The pandemic has changed the way every manufacturing business operates and, in my opinion, has accelerated our need for digital transformation by two to three years,” says strategic business development director, Martin Johnson.

Skills transfer was our immediate priority and we needed to find a solution that would allow us to take the expertise of our engineers and replicate it at new manufacturing locations without having staff on site.”

The benefits expected for Watson-Marlow include increased speed of set-up, reduced costs (such as travel expenses), the flexibility to train employees for out-of-core roles for a period of time, and the ability to retain the skills of older staff for the next generation of workers.

Training also offers an interesting intersection between the needs of manufacturing and the applications of XR in wider society. While UK companies like Edify use gaming technology platforms to allow customers (including manufacturers) to custom-build their own XR training environments, other more specialist companies are using the technology to create virtual environments where workers can learn how to operate dangerous machinery without putting themselves or others at risk.

The future of XR in the UK

Lowering barriers to entry and encouraging new applications of the technology are both important factors in driving up the adoption of XR. Bodies such as Immerse UK and several of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC) centres make up a growing body of expertise and sandbox environments for interested parties to learn about and trial the technology.

These, and others, are helping to make the UK fertile ground for both global heavyweights and smaller companies to explore the full potential of XR in industry.

Asked why companies like Microsoft, PTC, Siemens and others took part in VentilatorChallengeUK, Scott says; “HVMC had the opportunity to convene these companies from its neutral and agnostic status, and provided an important opportunity to companies to learn from the experience of putting their technologies to the test. Many companies responded, largely out of altruism because they felt they could help.”

Despite a blossoming ecosystem, there remain significant hurdles around interoperability, hardware and connectivity before XR becomes a universal add-on for interacting with physical and virtual environments. The UK’s expanding range of deployments provides the opportunity to lead both the development and application of this transformative technology. l

News in Brief

  1. In April 2022, Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Solutions launched the first in a series of augmented reality apps developed to enhance the customer experience and post-sales support for its products. The app allows customers to easily identify the tools required for maintenance tasks while providing information and clear step-by-step visual guidance. By laying instructions over a customer’s own pump, the app aids customer understanding of a task and saves time previously spent consulting written product manuals. The app was developed in-house by WMFTS’s new Digital Transformation department. “There is a new generation of employees with the skills and preference to consume instructions using visual, digital technology and this app makes learning new skills much more accessible,” explains head of department, Matthew Thomas.
  2. Siemens is using XR to gamify STEM learning for young people through its Digital Twin Challenge, aimed at 11 to 14-year-olds who can design and test vehicles in a virtual environment.
  3. HS1 Ltd is introducing AR technology to monitor assets across the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link it operates between St Pancras and Folkestone. Funded by Innovate UK, and supported by PAULEY, Network Rail, Athonet and the University of Sheffield AMRC, the project will monitor the real-time performance of rail assets and allow the swift detection and repair of faults.

“One area of interest concerns the use of VR to demonstrate and de-risk the business case of other tech projects”