Avoiding maintenance errors and improving efficiency are key ways to save money in a manufacturing environment, and GE Aviation recently found a way to do both by arming its mechanics with Google Glass and a smart wrench as part of a pilot program.
GE Aviation partnered with Upskill, formerly APX Labs, on a pilot program that included 15 GE Aviation mechanics at its Cincinnati manufacturing facility. Each mechanic was given Google Glass Enterprise Edition using Upskill's Skylight industrial AR platform, and a Wi-Fi enabled Atlas Copco Saltus MWR-85 TA torque wrench.
The key manufacturing point being measured was maintenance on B-nuts, which play a critical role in aircraft engine fluid lines and hoses, providing a sturdy, reliable seal if tightened and torqued properly. If they are too loose or too tight, the negative outcomes could be redoing the maintenance, cancelling a flight, or having an engine shut down during flight.
In the pilot, mechanics wearing Skylight on Glass received step-by-step guided instructions and images in their line of sight while they performed various maintenance tasks. As the mechanics performed tasks, when they came to a step where they needed to apply the torque wrench, Skylight alerted them through the smart glasses and then verified the correct value in real time before the mechanic could move on.
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"In the pilot, we captured survey data and time trials to see if there were reduced maintenance errors," explained Ted Robertson, manager of GE Aviation. The data showed that development and production assembly errors could be reduced as a result of the use of Google Glass and a smart tool. An unexpected but welcome result was discovering that productivity was improved as well, with mechanic's efficiency increasing an average of 8-12%.
The pilot wasn't intended to improve efficiency—it was looking simply for error reduction. "It was a happy-to-have but not a mandatory," Robertson said. "We were looking more at the quality of the product and reducing maintenance errors in them."
Brian Ballard, co-founder and CEO of Upskill, quickly interjected, "But we'll always take the speed improvement, too."
Normally mechanics at GE Aviation do their job following instructions in paper binders or on a computer. After they complete each task, they have to leave the engine, walk to a table or monitor, and document their work. With the smart glasses, they can see instructions in their line of sight, and then they can document each B-nut installation via a photo, so there's no need to step away from the job and jot down additional documentation to meet FAA regulations.
There was also more job satisfaction from the employees participating in the pilot. The 15 mechanics included in the study were surveyed on their impressions of the technology, and 60% of the participants said they preferred using the wearable technology compared to the traditional methods, and 85% of the mechanics said they believed the system would reduce manufacturing errors and that it was easy to use.
An analysis by GE Aviation shows that Skylight with Glass could save millions of dollars, so GE is exploring where else AR could be applicable across their business. The use of Google Glass with Skylight is not a single-use application; it has broad applicability within GE Aviation on any type of engine they manufacture, Ballard said.
Robertson agreed, saying, "We were initially targeting assembly, but this could be expanded to the repair and overhaul of the engines, and even wing support. Anytime a mechanic is touching an engine you can imagine them being able to use this."
The top 3 takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- GE Aviation partnered with Upskill to use its Skylight industrial AR platform on Google Glass as part of a pilot program.
- Mechanics' efficiency improved by 8-12% with the use of Google Glass and a Wi-Fi enabled smart torque wrench, and maintenance errors were reduced.
- GE Aviation is considering expanding the use of Google Glass and the smart torque wrench to other manufacturing facilities around the world.
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- Augmented reality gaining more traction than virtual reality in the enterprise (Tech Pro Research)
- AR and VR: The future of work and play? (ZDNet)
- Google Glass reborn with improved Enterprise Edition for workers (TechRepublic)
- Ten industries using augmented reality and virtual reality (ZDNet)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.