PTC LiveWorx 2019 day one review - AR adopters reveal the obstacles and benefits of augmented reality at work

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed June 12, 2019
PTC LiveWorx day one brought a slew of heady topics, from digital transformation to IoT to AR. But is the emphasis on AR relevant to customers? Here's my day one review, with an eye towards AR lessons and use cases.

AR customer panel PTC LiveWorx
LiveWorx Augmented Reality panelists

I expected PTC LiveWorx 2019 to kick off with an emphasis on PTC's IoT pursuits. Since their ThingWorx IoT platform acquisition in 2013, PTC has achieved considerable success with their IoT business - to the point that it already rivals their PLM business. At LiveWorx '18, PTC projected that their IoT business rival their CAD revenues by 2020 (I hope to get updated numbers on that today).

No surprise, then, that IoT makes the cut for PTC's three key messaging points for LiveWorx 2019. As I interpret them:

  1. The factory is the real IoT engine - and it's not hypothetical. Real world use cases are increasing.
  2. The need for digital transformation (DT) drives connected manufacturing, with a resulting need for a DT tech platform. Delivering on transformation means end-to-end data connectivity - no silos. It requires what PTC calls "enabling transformation across the value chain." That means transformation ties how you design (modern CAD, etc.), all the way through manufacturing, product management and service. In turn, that creates the need for deeper industry partners and standards, as no one company can do this alone. Example: two of PTC's biggest conference announcements were an expanded partnership with Rockwell Automation, and with the Microsoft Azure cloud, and the availability of PTC's Windchill PLM on Azure.
  3. Augmented reality (AR) has a crucial place in this transformational mix. How? By optimizing the human/machine or physical-digital relationship, with an impact on productivity, worker safety, and factory worker training and labor issues.

PTC customer Howden - "We can't escape Industry 4.0"

Elevating AR to the top three surprised me, considering that AR adoption is still early - and there is plenty still to prove. But PTC clearly has high hopes for AR, which is a key part of its IoT business division. But what do customers think? We found out later, during a PTC customer panel of AR adopters. Maria Wilson, Global Leader Data Driven Advantage at Howden, elaborated on her earlier keynote interview. Founded in Scotland in 1854, Howden's engineers are no strangers to industrial disruption. As Wilson told us:

We came about at the peak of the first Industrial Revolution, and that is something that's deeply embedded in our DNA.

And when did the latest disruption kick in? Wilson traces it back five years:

About five years ago, like any original equipment manufacturer, we started to get this huge push from the global Industry 4.0 [movement].

Wilson acknowledged that they didn't know what to do about Industry 4.0 right away, so they "put it into R&D." Howden's leadership could tell that change was in the air, but uncertainty about next steps lingered. But in the end:

We can't escape Industry 4.0.

So, Howden's Industry 4.0 response landed in Wilson's lap. The leadership gave her team the room to experiment:

For about a year and a half, we were allowed to tinker. It takes a lot of bravery from the leadership team to say, "We don't know that this is going to deliver anything, and we don't know that this is going to have an impact on our profit and loss line. But you guys need to figure out how to move forward."

From experiments to platform - enter ThingWorx

But experiments only take you so far. Eventually, you need a structured program: 

We fell in love with the promise of an almighty IT platform that would take the unknown out of the digital enablement. And that's how we came to ThingWorx. We tried a few platforms before ThingWorx. But none of them could actually stack up to our need for an all-encompassing IT platform that's easy to use - one that doesn't intimidate mechanical engineers, that has a natural flow of the user experience. It was the obvious choice for us.

But there was another bump in the road:

We realized we were actually looking at it from a relatively narrow angle. We didn't really have the big vision piece yet. That is when the leadership team became involved again.

Pay heed:

This is my advice to anyone in the room today. You cannot go about digital transformation without having a vision. And, you cannot go about digital transformation without having your leadership team committed to that vision.

Augmented Reality - not for the wow factor, but for transformation

But how does augmented reality enter the picture? Wilson's team had access to AR through ThingWorx Analytics, and they started tinkering again.

Today, it's hard for me to tell you where we're not using AR. Because we're using AR in our factories, we're using AR to create smart work instructions we've deployed in the factory for our workers, and for our field engineers in the field. We're using AR in product design processes. Our engineers today... can see the holographic projection of that factory, and it's the most impactful transformation in the design process that we've ever seen. They understand more of the product; they feel they can contribute more to the design of that product, and they're that much more efficient.

It's the customer impact of AR that makes the biggest impression. Wilson told us they are using AR in every sales meeting. No, it's not because of the "wow factor" - or sexy tech for its own sake.

It's about creating a connection between our customer and our product. That connection was not there before.

That part of Howden's AR journey is still unfolding. So far, Wilson gives it high marks:

Ultimately, we're using AR as the vehicle for transforming the entire customer relationship piece. Our customers now get to experience the product life, from when it's being designed to when it's being manufactured, to when it's actually being commissioned in their plant, to the way they're maintaining that equipment. So, it's an end-to-end process, where AR is used as the medium of interaction with our customers - and it's completely transformational.

AR for workforce training - a compelling use case

Of all the AR use cases I heard at LiveWorx, the potential impact on training made the biggest impression. Throughout this year, I've heard manufacturers say their biggest impediments to growth come back to labor. Yes, automation helps, but an aging workforce and lack of interest from youthful talent are a tough combination.

Youth can be drawn into manufacturing careers with: better outreach, debunking the myths of manufacturing as a dying industry, exposure to modern tools, etc - all topics of discussion here at LiveWorx. But what if you could more easily train lower skilled workers? What if remote specialists could train workers in distant regions? AR provides some answers here.

That topic was picked up by panelist Walter Davis, Head of Talent & Learning Applications at Aggreko, a UK-based temporary power supply provider:

We immediately recognized that there is a lot of potential in both VR and AR for training and development. It's immersive, it's engaging, it builds excitement. There hasn't been anyone that we've put through our experience that wasn't really excited and smiling as they did it.

PTC's enterprise platform is important to Davis and team as they look to scale their AR training:

For a talent learning team, ease of deployment is critical. We don't have a lot of programmers, we can't heavily invest in customization. We do need to have something that we can package up and use in the same way each time, and it's consistent, and easy to amend on your own.

The wrap - can AR change the workforce?

I wish the panel had spent more time on the ROI aspects of AR. In response to the question of where do you start for ROI impact, Davis said that a focus on asset downtime has paid off. The use of AR to keep expensive equipment assets up and running, rather than waiting on a qualified trainer to repair, is a good way to spark buy-in.

During our Q/A session with Heppelmann, he joked that AR means we don't have to learn anything anymore. We can just get our guided training whenever we need to do a task beyond our scope. He used the example of an AR headset with Deep Blue's chess program in our ears - after all, he joked, we only need to beat Garry Kasparov once. But what Heppelmann was really getting at is: can we utilized less skilled workers, knowing that expert help and/or training is just an A/R headset away?

After the talk, I asked Davis if this fits into their training model at Aggreko. He said not right now, but he's definitely looking at this in the future. It's a different training model. Instead of pre-job training before you take on a new role, you're now in on-the-job training mode, being guided through new tasks as you go. Davis says this could definitely pay off in remote locations, and in offices where experts can't get to. Given that Aggreko, like many manufacturers, has open job positions right now that aren't easy to fill, AR opens up a new skills conversation.

Next up for me at LiveWorx: more customer sessions and show floor tours. And, hopefully, more debate on digital transformation and the future of work. I want to get more clarity on why transformation matters to PTC customers, beyond the scope of a discrete project. Stay tuned.

End note: for more background on the implications of the Rockwell Automation partnership, check my colleague Jessica Twentyman's PTC LiveWorx 2019 - early smart factory wins begin to roll off the PTC/Rockwell production line. PTC also announced a bunch of enhancements to its AR platform.

Image credit - Photo of PTC Augmented Reality customer panel by Jon Reed. Panelists pictured include Walter Davis (right) and Maria Wilson (left).

Disclosure - PTC provided my hotel accommodations and a press pass to attend LiveWorx 2019.