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Justifying Investment in AR Technology: 5 Key Considerations for Life Sciences Executives

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Every year begins with a bold set of industry predictions for any technological innovation situated at the bleeding edge. Given the disruptive nature of COVID-19, along with its varied impacts, the predictions made for 2020 feel asinine, in hindsight. One technology that’s had real breakthrough is Industrial Augmented Reality (IAR), where adoption has been propelled several years forward in the wake of the virus outbreak.

We’re seeing this acceleration first-hand in Life Sciences manufacturing. Sudden shifts in market demand and production constraints have resulted in a re-evaluation of priorities. Decisions over whether to increase production of one essential good (such as critical medical devices or life-sustaining treatments) at the expense of a non-essential item would normally have involved extensive discussion and case-building. In a crisis context, such decisions had to be taken instantly.

Lacking a blueprint for how to handle a situation of this magnitude, Life Sciences leaders approached the crisis with worker safety as their number one priority. New measures facilitating social distancing for those on the plant floor and enabling remote operations for non-essential workers brought added pressures, but getting them right was essential.

In this face of this uncertainty, AR has come to the fore to support a range of activities designed to improve productivity and enhance safety.

Augmenting Crisis Response

Leaders across the Life Sciences sectors have watched closely as AR technology has matured, weighing up its utility in supporting tasks such as design review, quality assurance and predictive maintenance of equipment. As hardware such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and Google Glass have developed into enterprise-ready solutions, and use of mobile devices is now ever more ubiquitous, implementing AR has become substantially less onerous over time.

In the current climate, the value of AR has become more apparent, shifting from a nice-to-have on the technology adoption roadmap to a must-have technology that allows enterprises to adapt to changing circumstances. As a result, decision makers are overcoming their previous reservations to rapidly bring AR into industrial processes.

Here are five of the main drivers behind this trend.

1. AR Supports Business Continuity

Events of recent months have put pressure on manufacturers to keep operations running against a variety of challenges. The inability for skilled experts to travel to physical locations (and particularly across borders, due to mandatory quarantining) and the need for distancing between workers on the shop floor has made it difficult to transfer important knowledge to where it’s needed.

AR supports continuity in various ways. Firstly, manufacturers can use the technology to provide remote support so that expert skills can be accessed on demand. Further, AR allows for information to be captured on aspects such as performing complex procedures, resolving fault scenarios and equipment repair. Through the technology, such information can be made widely and instantly available.

2. AR Works with Existing Plant Machinery

One of the major challenges manufacturers face in embracing innovation is the need to balance new technologies with their existing installed infrastructure and equipment, which have often been in operation for decades. Digital transformation is, and will remain, a key priority for manufacturers. Some elements will require deeper technical structural and organisational change, while some parts can utilise hardware that remains separate from operational technologies.

This is the case with AR, which can sit as a separate layer, meaning that manufacturers can adopt capabilities without having to rip and replace their core infrastructure. Instead, the AR-enabled devices act as standalone tools, which supplement the technology on the plant floor.

3. AR Helps Expand the Range of Possibilities

If I told you earlier in the year that automotive companies would be making ventilators, or that gin and whiskey companies would be producing critical hand sanitisers, you may have raised an eyebrow. Yet, once the severity of COVID-19 was known, this is precisely what happened. Switching production to produce critical equipment, vastly different to what they and their staff are used to manufacturing, is a massively complex task.

In such situations, however, AR can be immensely helpful in educating workers on how to build the equipment and manage assembly of the products. This is through capturing the initial manual assembly in the virtual world so that technicians can follow digital assembly instructions, thus expediting the process of transition and delivering faster speed to patient.

4. AR Reduces the Financial Burden of Training

In a highly skilled manufacturing industry like Life Sciences, the most valuable assets aren’t just the specialised production equipment, but the people who direct and operate them. Training staff has traditionally been a major (yet unavoidable) expense for the industry, and one that’s required an ongoing financial commitment due to personnel changes and the emergence of new skills. A pharmaceutical company typically has an average of more than 1,000 standard operating procedures (SOPs), and the training costs per employee are significantly higher than other manufacturing industries.

AR can help Life Sciences manufacturers to completely remodel how they train and onboard staff, creating substantial cost savings and bringing consistency to training operations. This has been particularly important in recent months where there’s been the need to transfer knowledge due to rapidly shifting operating circumstances.

5. AR Enhances Broader Digital Transformation Efforts

In a tightly-regulated environment such as Life Sciences, change can be a long process. Manufacturers know that, if they are to stay competitive as the sector evolves, they need to become more efficient in their production processes and their use of data. This can only really be achieved by digitalising their plant operations and leveraging the power of technologies such as IoT, predictive analytics, machine learning and AI.

AR has become an integral part of this, helping manufacturers to visualise important information, such as machine performance data, and improve remote operations through the technology’s inherent accessibility and scalability.


Making Change a Reality

What’s been strongly apparent over recent months is that more digitally transformed companies have had an advantage in navigating the sudden challenges posed by COVID-19 compared with companies reliant on manual processes.

This is why Rockwell Automation and PTC are working together to support executives in building the business case for making AR part of their operations. Combining our expertise in AR and long history of working with Life Sciences customers, we’re able to help design and implement the AR solutions that they need, both to support worker safety and productivity in current conditions, and to deliver on broader transformation ambitions.

Billy Sisk
Billy Sisk
Life Sciences Industry Manager EMEA, Rockwell Automation
Billy has worked extensively both in automation and IT and is responsible for Rockwell Automation’s life science market strategy across EMEA. Through his high performing team, Billy helps pharmaceutical manufacturers bring innovative treatments to patients faster, while improving quality, yield and product security.

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