5 Ways the Industrial Metaverse Will Impact Manufacturers
| By: Keith Shaw, A3 Contributing Editor
The hype around the term “metaverse” is accelerating at astronomical speed, with science-fiction visions of virtual gamers all spending virtual currency in an infinite number of virtual worlds. But when you peel back the layers around some of the hype, you’ll find some tangible benefits for manufacturers in how they can become more productive in both the digital and physical world.
Metaverse is a set of technologies that allows for persistent, digital representations connected to aspects of the real world, like people, places, and things.
First, what do we mean by metaverse? Think of the term cyberspace, but on steroids. Already, our lives intersect virtual spaces: Surfing the web, posting to Twitter, chatting on Messenger, telling Alexa to turn up our home’s thermostat. The metaverse adds in more layers -- augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) – that can immerse you in virtual environments.
With the metaverse, we might overlay information on the real world. For example, smart glasses might remind you about a friend’s birthday when you run across her in the park. Or, we might recreate the physical world in a virtual setting. Imagine walking around the top of the Eiffel Tower while standing in your living room. We might create entirely new environments, such as previewing your new house before you build it.
As the metaverse advances, the sensations may move beyond your eyes. VR gloves might allow you to “feel” an object that’s hundreds of miles away – or one that doesn’t yet exist in the real world.
The first use of the term ‘metaverse’ was in the 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash”, by Neal Stephenson, which described a single virtual world separate from the physical world. Other books, video games and content expanded on this concept, creating virtual worlds in “Ready Player One,” (which called its shared VR reality “the OASIS”), “The Matrix”, and “Second Life”, to name a few examples.
While many online role-playing games create virtual worlds, those avatars/characters are limited to that single game. In a metaverse concept within gaming, a single avatar representing a physical person would be able to travel and interact in multiple “universes”.
From a business perspective, most of them are focusing on the concept of linking physical realities to virtual ones, either through digital overlays (augmented reality), or virtual immersion (virtual reality). A concept like holoportation, where employees located in different parts of the world collaborate in a virtual room, is one example of a metaverse application.
These technologies are not just limited to video games and simulations for entertainment, but also include some very real opportunities for businesses.
In the manufacturing space, here are five big impacts that AR/VR and MR will have on manufacturing over the next few years.
Number 1. Training employees more quickly, more safely
Several companies have begun training employees on how to use and maintain equipment through the use of VR headsets instead of having them use physical equipment that can be dangerous or difficult to use in a training situation.
For example, training JetBlue technicians with real planes is expensive and time-consuming, so the company deployed a VR solution in partnership with software maker Strivr. The program helps technicians simulate touching a plane in the most realistic way possible -- but without the time, expense and risk of the physical environment.
“You want them to leave learning something and go back into their work environment and see their performance levels increasing,” says Andy Kozak, who implemented the VR training at JetBlue.
In addition, the concept of immersive learning – which combines the sense and presence of VR with learning theory, data science and spatial design – improves the learning experience for employees, especially younger ones, rather than having them sit in a classroom all day.
Trainees also get the benefit of being able to make mistakes in a virtual environment without real world consequences, compared with on-the-job training with heavy equipment or dangerous environments.
For example, Verizon uses Strivr VR training programs to teach retail employees on how to react to a store robbery scenario. Other Stivr programs show warehouse workers on the proper methods for loading and unloading trucks, or food production workers learn the proper safety methods around food processing equipment.
Because of these benefits, many companies are looking to deploy VR training as a first step for training their new employees, especially for industrial or other heavy industry scenarios.
“A lot of heavy industries and even the United States military have discovered that when you need to teach people a new vocational skill, like how to repair a piece of equipment such as a truck or a helicopter, one of the really long parts of that educational process is people learning where all the parts are on the equipment,” says Richard Ward, a senior expert on VR at McKinsey. “So a number of organizations have decided to go VR and metaverse first, rather than real-world first.”
Number 2. Simulations ahead of physical deployments can find improvements
Part of the metaverse includes the technologies known as digital twins, in which all of the components of a physical location (or product) are digitized to produce a virtual “twin.” In manufacturing, digital twins can be used to compare the design of a product to the physical version produced – looking for product flaws, for example, or virtual environments can be set up for the purpose of simulation. For example, many autonomous vehicle designers now utilize simulations of real-world locations to fine-tune and better teach the vehicles how to better operate.
In another example, BMW utilized simulation for six months at a new factory, building virtual cars on a one-to-one scale within the metaverse, before deploying the final layout for the factory, says McKinsey’s Ward. In the process of those six months, the company changed about 30% of the design from the original based on the results of the simulation. “They’ve not said publicly how much more efficient it was, but they did say that about 30% of what they thought was the world’s best factory on day one of the simulation had to change in the process,” says Ward. “These are people who build new factories on a daily basis, and they still found that level of learning from the simulation.”
Number 3. Using AR/VR for field service workers to repair equipment on the job
Similar to training scenarios for new frontline workers, field service workers and technicians can also get assistance on equipment maintenance and support through AR, VR and MR technologies, says Rajat Gupta, senior director of Business Development for Autonomous Systems, Mixed Reality and Metaverse at Microsoft.
This accelerated especially during the pandemic, when everyone support teams were limited by travel restrictions and health concerns.
“Rather than flying someone from Sweden or a different country back to the U.S., a lot of them used VR and mixed reality to provide remote assistance,” Gupta said.
A benefit for companies in the remote assistance space is that many solutions do not require additional hardware such as specialized AR glasses or giant VR headsets. “Many companies are exploring the use of AR with the devices they already have, including smartphones and tablets,” says Tom Mainelli, an analyst with research firm IDC. “The pandemic caused many companies to accelerate their adoption of AR/VR technologies.”
McKinsey’s Ward says the use of this technology can help improve the attitudes of workers in the field, without the feeling like they are being watched or monitored by their employer.
“There’s a stereotype that field workers are grumpy about this technology being a kind of Big Brother,” he says. “But while certainly nobody likes to feel that someone is watching over their shoulder, it turns out that one of the things people do like very much is the feeling of gaining mastery over problems, which also gives them a sense of job satisfaction.”
Number 4. Product design collaboration virtually around the world
Another key area where the pandemic accelerated action around VR is in product design for manufacturers. When everyone was in the office, engineers could collaborate on designs in meeting rooms, but with everyone working at home they suddenly needed a new solution. With VR, design engineers can collaborate remotely from around the world and create a virtual design.
“If you look at an automotive company, they’re designing cars by starting with clay models, and they have a clay model that people can create from a visual point of view,” says Microsoft’s Gupta. “Then they get designed in CAD software, but when you’re thinking of collaboration, it’s very hard to collaborate on CAD and imagine things in 3D, so many are now using mixed reality – AR and VR – to take that car in 3D and get people to collaborate on the car design.”
During the pandemic, companies launched metaverse design rooms on the Internet.
“Our clients and other expert engineers can log in remotely and the experience takes on the quality of Zoom in 3D, which allows a new level of engineering to happen,” adds McKinsey’s Ward. “The beauty of it is that people are able to do highly productive engineering design work without getting on an airplane. That has a lot of rollover value for what we’re doing long term.”
Number 5. Building physical products from virtual designs; adding digital assets from physical items
The bridging of the physical world to a virtual world will provide several opportunities for manufacturers, potentially unlocking new revenue streams. While virtual-to-virtual commerce has been around for years – in which a video gamer can purchase digital items with real money – new concepts are arising in which physical products can be created by designs originating in the virtual space.
“I’m interested in exploring beyond the virtual-to-virtual to the virtual-to-physical component,” says Cathy Hackl, a futurist, author and metaverse expert. “I may be in a virtual experience and purchase something that could arrive physically at my home. And then there’s the opposite, where I am buying a physical item for a physical experience that unlocks something for me in a virtual space.”
Examples of this have already begun to emerge in small settings. The HeroForge website, for example, allows role-playing gamers to virtually design miniature figures, with hundreds of different templates for a character’s face, clothes, weapons and poses. The completed design can then be purchased, and HeroForge can 3D print and ship the item to customers. Users can also purchase the virtual design file and 3D print the figure on their own device.
In an example of physical-to-virtual, toy company L.O.L. Surprise creates card packets with a QR code that can be scanned to unlock non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and virtual experiences, says Hackl. “These are things that have not been done at scale yet, but I know they will be eventually as companies understand more about how the customer journey in retail and the purchase points are changing,” she says.
Infinite possibilities await manufacturers who don’t wait
Traditionally, manufacturers have often been slow to adopt new technologies, but experts in the metaverse and AR/VR space said the opportunities are too great for manufacturers to sit on the sidelines.
“Manufacturing companies that aren’t at the very least experimenting with [AR and VR] today are at risk of falling behind in the near future,” says IDC’s Mainelli. “AR/VR will not only help manufacturers digitally transform their businesses, but they will be key to recruiting, onboarding, and upskilling their workforces in the future.”
Keith Shaw is a digital journalist who has written extensively about enterprise IT, consumer electronics, and industrial robotics for more than 20 years.