What manufacturing companies need to know about virtual reality


In advance of our Visualisation and Virtual Reality event on 7th November, we caught up with the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC), to find out more about the exciting opportunities these technologies can offer.

At the AFRC, we’re part of the government’s High-Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC). The Catapult operates through seven centres, offering manufacturing firms access to its world-class equipment, expertise and collaborative opportunities.

The only catapult centre in Scotland, we support UK engineering and manufacturing companies with the adoption of new technology with the aim of making their processes, products and facilities better.

This includes helping companies as they take that first step into the world of Industry 4.0 which is why we are hosting an event on Visualisation, AR, VR and the fourth industrial revolution at #hellodigital, An Lochran, Inverness Campus on Wed 7 November

One of the key growth areas for us in the past twenty-four months has been helping companies understand that VR and AR (Augmented Reality)  aren't just for gamers. They can bring about practical business benefits too.

As such, we’ve been working to highlight the technology’s many engineering applications, with great success.

Virtual reality for industry

Factory planning

So let’s talk about virtual reality in action.

Our digital team recently helped a customer plan how to best bring a new product into their existing facility and manoeuvre it around the factory.

Putting new equipment into already established facilities is generally risky as it’s easy to overlook infrastructure.

Ducting, electrical conduits and HVAC units are all easily missed, which can have a big, and potentially expensive, impact if they need to be moved or reconfigured.

Historically, the planning process would have first been mocked up using cardboard boxes or 2D drawings, which is both time consuming and potentially costly. 

 Using immersive VR instead, however, the AFRC digital team could quickly identify what considerations had to be made to effectively get the product into the factory.

We could take all the existing building infrastructure into consideration, effectively planning the ideal route for the new product – with no nasty surprises on installation day.

These VR tools are also great methods for engaging with members of staff who work on the shop floor week in, week out. Often the most familiar with the factory environment, these people can quickly point out where things are going to go wrong.

By dropping them into the VR environment they could comment and change the VR simulation in real time, meaning their feedback was captured and, even more importantly, acted upon.

Finally, one of the other great things about VR is that it’s still a novel and new technology so people are generally engaged and find it really fun to use.

Optimising factory layout

We’ve even used VR for our own benefit at the AFRC, for optimising our factory layout.

We’ve recently acquired two large-scale rotary friction welding machines, meaning that we’ve had to relocate 60-70% of our installed assets.

Traditionally, we would have re-planned the workshop layout using AutoCAD (as we didn’t have a 3D model of our facility).  

An engineer would have drafted and printed the plans, allowing a crowd of people to gather around and use visualise what the space looks like in their minds.

Using VR and high-end scanning techniques we allowed our teams to stand in the reconfigured virtual factory, at full scale, and make seamless changes.

 Making the decision making process much simpler, we were also able to identify an optimal layout much faster than ever before.

What next for virtual reality?  

VR, the process of using a large screen or head mounted display to visualise 3D data in an immersive manner, is going nowhere.

At the AFRC we’ll continue to work with customers to understand how these technologies can be integrated into their day to day business.

Why? Because we believe that VR technologies can help overcome challenges, solve problems and generally support businesses to become more agile and productive. 


Augmented reality – one to watch

The process of using a tablet or head mounted display to add contextual information to a user’s view is Augmented Reality (AR) and it’s one to watch.

We’re currently trialling its use in the context of digital work instructions. Here it’s used to support a person completing a complex task, visualising animations, images, videos and text in the context of their view.

Time for another film reference – like Tony Stark’s heads up display in his Iron Man suit!

Enabling designers and engineers to visualise 3D data at full scale in the environment where they’re standing, AR has the potential to turn the process of making things on its head.

Imagine being an electrician or plumber on a construction site. Imagine having the ability to overlay 3D visualisations of the locations of electrical cables and pipework that were installed when the building was constructed.

Virtual remote support

Imagine being a maintenance technician sent to fix complicated machinery. Imagine the maintenance instructions were visualised before your eyes, showing you which parts to remove and how to do it.

In other cases, an expert can dial in and add digital icons and annotations to the machine or component that the technician is working on in the field - minus any complicated jargon.

From film to real life

AR is going through a similar process that VR went through in the 90’s.

Currently portrayed on the big screen (Iron Man, Divergent, and Altered Carbon,) it’s going to take a massive amount of effort from the hardware giants like Google and Microsoft to bring them into the real world.

Certain AR technology is currently available in a prototype form (Microsoft’s HoloLens, Daqri’s Smart Glasses or the Magic Leap) and these devices are innovative but have some major limitations.

HVMC is working with hardware and software vendors, alongside early adopters and end users, to develop the proof of concepts applications that will go a long way to accelerate the adoption of this new technology.

Providing the support you need

At the AFRC and HVMC, we're always trying to push the boundaries of what the state of the art digital technologies can achieve for manufacturing, engineering and construction companies.

We do this through working directly with UK industry and we're set up in a way that should make it easy for a business of any size to receive some level of support. 

We believe that these novel VR and AR technologies will change the way we make things in the future and are committed to helping businesses understand how these technologies can be integrated into their operations.  


Article written by David Grant, a Digital Manufacturing Engineer specialising in Visualisation, at the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC).

David Grant will be one of the speaker coming to Inverness on Wed 7 November for Visualisation, AR, VR and the fourth industrial revolution at #hellodigital, An Lochran, Inverness Campus. Reserve your seat online at: http://hellodigital.scot/events/visualisation-ar-vr-and-the-fourth-industrial-revolution-tickets-49435262200  

Further reading: Report on Immersive Technologies in Manufacturing