Augmented Reality, Tech Miracle Or Surveillance Tool?
Exploitation of so much data by artificial intelligence could lead to the automatic evaluation of individual employee performance.
PARIS — We might soon see a mechanic put on augmented-reality glasses that will show him how to repair a car step-by-step. But the same glasses will also record his slightest movement making it possible to know how long it took him to finish the job, whether he needs to be sent into training… or find a new job.
This is the "factory 4.0" scenario that consultants, industrialists and trade unions foresee. In the future, the steps in a product's lifecycle, from design to production and maintenance will be constantly monitored by computer. Engineers and IT specialists dream about this "digital continuity."
"Augmented reality is one of the tools that will allow us to build it," says Yann Bouju, who is in charge of virtual and augmented reality at French military shipbuilder DCNS.
"Augmented reality is a direct link between the information systems of a company and an operator. It provides the latter with the help it needs when it needs it, and allows it to work faster and with fewer mistakes," says Sylvie Naudet, who supervises industrial partnerships at CEA List, a smart digital systems company that has been working on augmented reality technologies for the past 12 years.
Thanks to computer-aided design, most industrialists have digital and 3D models of their products at their disposal. It is possible to superimpose extracts of this model onto reality — it's the "visual" augmented reality.
"Since the A380, we've been developing software to be able to extract digital data and superimpose it on reality," explains Patrick Vigié, who's in charge of industrial technologies at Airbus. "To control the inside of an aircraft, we used to make a plan on paper. Now, with a tablet, we can compare the real and the virtual."
These technologies would allow operators to vastly increase profits. "During the testing phase of one of our augmented reality helmets by one of the leaders in aeronautical maintenance, we observed a 30% gain in time compared to instructions on paper and eight times fewer mistakes," says Zile Liu, co-founder and chief executive of Laster Technologies.
Selfie aboard! — Photo: William Murphy
"Of course, some barriers remain such as the precision and sturdiness of the information's positioning, which has to be to the nearest millimeter," says Jean-Marc Alexandre, deputy director at CEA List.
Alexandre is also project leader at Factory Lab, an innovation platform located on the Paris Saclay University's campus, where industrialists test solutions for their future factory.
At Factory Lab's inauguration last fall, the company Diota showcased a sort of video projector equipped with a camera that displayed mounting instructions directly on the parts. The device is currently being tested at Dassault Aviation.
Companies like Airbus, DCNS, Safran are already using or experimenting with augmented reality, which can be used in production, maintenance, and training.
"By guiding people step by step who don't have a very high technical level, we can bring them to the production chain," says Henri Pidault, head of digital technologies at Deloitte France.
An employer could know whether you gave the screws the right number of turns.
"The final goal of some industrialists with augmented reality is the automated verification of work," says another specialist of this technology under the condition of anonymity.
Smartphones, tablets, glasses, and the like, that use augmented reality have a camera to capture what the user sees and to record what he or she does. "It's very likely that, in the future, beyond the camera that looks, the connected objects loaded with sensors will allow for the addition of extra data," says Henri Pidault.
An employer will not only be able to know whether the employee has followed the right procedure but also whether he gave the screws the right number of turns.
Data collected can be anonymized and passed on to the quality and design departments. The latter might realize, for instance, that several operators have encountered difficulties and that the product, or how it's assembled, requires changes.
"The advantages of these digital technologies are important in terms of work reliability," says Laurent Zibell, advisor to IndustriAll Europe, a coalition of 190 European trade unions of industry workers. "But the risks are manifold: these technologies will allow for the permanent collection of data — not always anonymized — on the workers. And the exploitation of that data by artificial intelligence programs could lead to the automatic evaluation of individual performances and motivation..."
Of course, companies are already used to implementing safeguards such as fair use charters for digital tools they provide their managers with like computers, smartphones with geolocation, etc. But setting up such agreements could be more complicated with wary workers.
"It's more important to initiate the discussions much in advance and to proceed progressively. Inform the employees, test each new digital tool over several months in factories, then sign a local agreement," says Frank Hess, director of the Bosch Rexroth plant in Hamburg, Germany, where several tests are already under way.
An agreement, praised by IndustriAll Europe, has already been signed: staff representatives will be granted access to the plant's database and will be able to check how it's used.