“The industrial metaverse combines physical-digital fusion and human augmentation for industrial applications and contains digital representations of physical industrial environments, systems, assets and spaces that people can control, communicate, and interact with.” Thierry Klein, President Bell Labs
The word “metaverse” creates a thousand images and perhaps even more questions in our minds. Everyone is talking about this ubiquitous and unprecedented convergence of the virtual, real, and digital landscapes. While applications of VR, AR, and MR have existed for a while, it is the immersive nature of the metaverse and its ability to cause meaningful actions in the real world through actions taken in the virtual domain, and vice versa, that make it so interesting.
Applications of the metaverse are popping up in all areas of daily life and are being used to garner innovative solutions in areas like social media, customer service, and brand-identity improvement. However, Forbes points out that the manufacturing industry is the MVP for metaverse application and deployment. Manufacturing has the potential to bring operations to near 100% efficiency, with no-touch/low-touch manufacturing eventually leading to a lights-out setup. According to Verified Market Research, the metaverse market will reach a value of $824.5 billion by 2030.
It is important for manufacturers to understand that the metaverse extends beyond digital twins and has specific requirements that ensure data handling and connectivity remain effective. There are prerequisites for data acquisition, AI, edge computing, 5G connectivity, and workforce intelligence that must be met before a low-touch/no-touch manufacturing system can be attained.
How Does the Metaverse Work in Manufacturing and What Are its Minimum Requirements?
Forbes states that digital twins, robots, and mechanics equipped with MR headsets are intended to strengthen engineering through real-world simulations and data-driven industrial systems. Boeing provides an example of this kind of metaverse application. Since they trace 70% of their quality issues to design problems, it makes perfect sense for Boeing to simulate every possible scenario before a product hits the production line. However, Boeing recognizes that digital tools alone will not solve every challenge, which is why the aerospace giant is also exploring organizational and cultural changes across the entire company.
NASA created another interesting application of the metaverse that feels straight out of science fiction. They performed a “Holoportation,” which basically used a hololens-created hologram and teleportation to allow astronauts to communicate and work with people on Earth as if they were together on the International Space Station. This technology, when combined with haptics, can lead to low/light/virtual-touch manufacturing, which is a metaverse deliverable that comes before no-touch manufacturing. This phenomenon also eliminates worry about not having the “human touch” in manufacturing and allows creativity and innovation to manifest.
The metaverse creates endless possibilities in any given manufacturing setup based on existing levels of automation and digitization. Process data and its visualization will become key to this kind of system, and the frontline workforce will have the full breadth of AR, VR, MR, and wearable technologies at their disposal to enhance the way they work. Companies must take heed now, and C-suites need to look beyond digital replicas of equipment to create living, breathing virtual worlds out of their operations and all their nuances.
Prerequisites That Enable Metaverse Implementation:
An MIT Technology Review post highlights the absolute essentials for establishing an industrial metaverse ecosystem within a value chain, with the obvious outcome being that production efficiency and output will increase and production will become faster, more resilient, and more profitable.
5G connectivity, which ensures uninterrupted and seamless internet connectivity, will be an absolute must, and so will AI and edge computing. These three factors are extremely critical when building the foundation for an industrial metaverse. For AI and edge computing, decentralized networking with robust security and perhaps fully cloud or hybrid infrastructures will be a major requirement. For AI, it is important to get real-time process data in the right context in order to perform prescriptive and predictive analytics that lead to better operational and business outcomes.
Aside from the robotics and reinforced intelligent exoskeletons that will provide future workers with superhuman strength and enable even further automation, the main aspect that will differentiate one metaverse ecosystem from another is the software-application infrastructure and how well-positioned it is to enable this advanced way of working.
Before manufacturers even conjure up the vision of a metaverse, Webalo recommends establishing a Workforce Intelligence Center using a platform that enables them to capture, assess, and utilize shop-floor data in a contextualized manner and make better decisions in real time.
Most manufacturing operations struggle with two major challenges when it comes to the digitization of their processes, even when they have all the right enterprise- and automation-level software applications in place.
The first challenge is the integration of all applications housing the data that drives an operation. This means connecting data from disparate enterprise applications and point-solutions or from the MES responsible for executing production on the shop floor. The other major challenge concerns the frontline workforce: While a great deal of attention is paid to the way process equipment is utilized, most operations neglect the hidden capacity that exists between the gaps of an underutilized analog workforce.
Webalo recommends that manufacturers working toward a metaverse ecosystem consider creating a Workforce Intelligence Centre first. This would enable the implementation of AI and edge computing, two of the three prerequisites of the metaverse. The platform they use should integrate enterprise applications while connecting the entire frontline in a way that empowers them with the enhanced intelligence needed for better decision-making.
At a minimum, the Intelligence Center should automate and digitize production forms, provide integration with all enterprise and legacy/point applications, and contextualize data. It should allow users to create their own apps and interfaces that provide them with notifications and alarms in case of OOS occurrences or breakdowns. Furthermore, the platform should allow workflow automation, process visualization, data visualization in an intelligent format (graphs, charts, infographics), and the ability to convert this intelligence into action and enable optimization. Needless to say, such a platform should be cloud based or at least offer a hybrid setup, and it should allow the full rollout of AI and edge computing in the application ecosystem.
Webalo recommends that manufacturers carefully plan their approach to the metaverse and all it has to offer by creating a foundation for success. They should begin with the creation of a frontline Workforce Intelligence Center as the first step toward total digitization and AI implementation!