Augmented reality (AR) is an essential component for digital transformation in life sciences. It is important to understand the areas of your organization that could benefit most from AR – as well as how you can leverage it to drive tangible benefits.

There is no doubt that 2020 has been a year like no other. COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation for many organizations as social distancing, remote work and sudden shifts in demand become the new normal. For organizations to survive and thrive, they need to invest in new technologies and ways of doing things.

Augmented reality has emerged as a technology that is uniquely positioned to help organizations navigate the future of work and bring digital technology to the frontline, helping them to maintain business continuity and drive resiliency. This is particularly important in life sciences manufacturing where sudden shifts in market demand and production constraints have resulted in a re-evaluation of priorities.

Worker safety continues to be the number one priority for life sciences organizations during these times. 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 the face of this uncertainty, AR has come to the fore to support a range of activities designed to improve productivity and enhance safety. 

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.

The AR Advantage

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.

Augmented reality is a powerful technology that accelerates onboarding, transforms learning and training practices, enables remote support and collaboration, and drives productivity improvements. In a new normal that is increasingly virtual, augmented reality marries the physical world and the digital world, empowering frontline workers in the factory and in the field. It delivers many benefits including:

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 told earlier in the year that automotive companies would be making ventilators, or that gin and whiskey companies would be producing critical hand sanitisers, one 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.

Investing in AR is a must for life sciences organizations

Digital Transformation

Organizations that are further advanced in their digital transformation journey have had an advantage in navigating the sudden challenges posed by COVID-19 compared with companies reliant on manual processes.

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.

***This article first appeared in Automation Today issue 65