The Future of Automation, Part II: How Augmented Reality Can Transform Complex Discrete Manufacturing

The first blog in this series discussed a recent Frost & Sullivan paper, The Future of Automation: A Primer by Karthik Sundaram, and focused on artificial intelligence (AI). As well as AI, that paper noted the influence of edge computing and augmented reality (AR) on the future of automation.

In this blog, AR becomes the topic of discussion. Let’s begin with some basics. Virtual reality (VR) as a term has already entered popular usage. The consumer marketplace includes VR products such as Oculus Rift that immerse the user in a digitally created, but artificial environment that only exists on a screen. VR appears to be realistic and enables the user to believe he or she is experiencing reality. AR goes beyond CR (Cinematic Reality) to provide the user with a combination of the virtual and the actual. It overlays virtual objects on top of the real world to aid the user in terms of understanding, perception or action. PDFs, diagrams, detailed instructions and other aids can be superimposed onto smart glasses and other devices.

The latest versions of this technology can even anchor virtual images to physical objects; as the user moves around an object, the virtual image adjusts to align precisely with the real world. In this way, an engineer, assembler, maintenance technician or inspector can walk around the shop floor or industrial facility and be assisted by AR images that fit the context of what is being viewed.

AR is no longer a distant, sci-fi dream. This technology is already flooding onto the shop floor and into field service. Analyst firm IDC put worldwide spending on AR/VR at around $18 billion last year, almost double the previous year. Far from being a consumer-dominated sector, commercial deployments already represent more than 60% of revenue. By 2021, that number will rise to more than 85% of the market. On-site assembly, safety, process manufacturing, training and industrial maintenance are among the most widely deployed use cases in the manufacturing sector.

The oil & gas sector is currently leading the way in the number of industrial-scale deployments. But use in the manufacturing sector is rising sharply. By 2025, Forrester Research predicts that about 14.4 million U.S. workers will be equipped with smart glasses, up from around half a million today. These numbers demonstrate that AR has moved firmly out of the early adopter category and is now entering the mainstream.

AR benefits include fewer instances of human error, more rapid execution time, lowered downtime, fewer breakdowns, greater workforce productivity, better fix rates and higher profitability. For those in complex discrete manufacturing, assembly, inspection, and maintenance processes can be more easily documented and reviewed by supervisors.

In addition, AR can provide new employees with step-by-step instructions to help them move through complex tasks with ease. This accelerates the process of attaining competence. Instead of it taking years to be able to assemble sophisticated systems without error, they can get there in a matter of weeks. They are guided every step of the way by systems that highlight which valve to address, which bolt to tighten (and to which degree of torque) and what to do with a faulty component. Everything is documented by the AR system and made available to MES and other plant systems.

The problem of lack of trained resources can also be materially assisted by AR. Inexperienced employees can access the know-how of veterans and remote experts via an AR device that helps them connect to the expert who can then walk them through the necessary actions. The remote expert can even annotate the display for the user in real time.

AR, then, brings together the digital and the physical worlds. By augmenting the real world with insights from the virtual world, those engaged in monitoring processes or maintaining systems gain improved decision-making capabilities. This adds enormous value to factory and process automation.

With the convergence of advanced technologies such as AI, AR and edge computing, industrial automation is going through a phase of explosive growth in the coming years. iBase-t stands ready to assist manufacturers in integrating AR software smoothly into existing systems. The iBase-t Digital Manufacturing Suite acts as the glue between MES, ERP, PLM and other shop floor and manufacturing systems to lead the organization along a reliable pathway toward end-to-end digitization.

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The Future of Automation, Part I: How AI will Impact Automation

A recent Frost & Sullivan paper, The Future of Automation: A Primer by Karthik Sundaram, zeroed in on how trends such as artificial intelligence (AI), edge computing and augmented reality (AR) are influencing automation. The author explained how automation and digitization of the shop floor are front and center in the disruption of traditional manufacturing business models. From design to engineering and deployment to operations, the shop floor is being reimagined. The next series of blogs will examine AI, AR and edge in turn.

Let’s Begin with AI

Human-centered engineering models are labor intensive and require constant verification, rework and re-keying. Parts go missing, elements fall through the cracks and delays become the norm. It takes monumental amounts of effort from supervisors and manager to maintain any level of efficiency. By adding digitization and AI into the mix, it is possible to transform the old model into an automated system that facilitates continuous operational learning and productivity gains that exceed existing approaches.

The potential for complex discrete manufacturing is immense. AI opens the door to machines and systems that can sense, process data and act in a similar way to humans. It covers related areas such as natural language processing and problem solving, as well as image, object and sound recognition. It also employs machine learning as a subset of AI to learn without being programmed explicitly. Training algorithms are developed which help the system or machine to learn the details of context that can assist in sorting through massive amounts of data with speed and accuracy.

Shop floor systems armed with AI could study production data sets and devise better programs for operations. Manufacturers would be able to consolidate the data that typically exists in isolated siloes. By subjecting it to AI, data would not only be made broadly available to other systems, it would help organizations to glean insight and competitive advantage from their systems.

AI in Automation

In the field of automation, AI can be broken down into areas such as perception, thinking, response and acting:

Perception: automation systems can be designed to be able to understand instructions in natural language, and recognize optical characters, images, videos, faces, handwriting and speech. Instead of merely recording a bunch of 0s and 1s in a database, AI makes it possible to perceive the meaning from those symbols and translate that into action.

Thinking: Automation systems can be empowered with machine learning capabilities to perform supervised and unsupervised learning. While there remains the vital job of managerial supervision, many routine decisions can be relegated to the automated systems. Mid-level decisions can have solutions or actions proposed by AI for approval. High-level decisions remain the province of a real-live operator.

Response: Systems gain the ability to respond using speech synthesis, generated natural language, robotic process automation and APIs to control systems. We are already seeing this used heavily in voice prompt systems and automated phone systems. The technology is gradually filtering its way down to the shop floor.

Act: Automation systems can be given enough capacity and compute power to analyze data and perform case-based reasoning. Expert systems can also be devised to solve complex problems by emulating the decision-making skills of a human. Imagine the possibilities if the operators are freed from the burden of routine checks, and endless manual actions. If most of these can be turned over to the machine, the skills of the individual can be better harnessed in the performance of more challenging, mission-critical tasks.

With the convergence of advanced technologies such as AI, AR and edge computing, industrial automation is expected to go through a phase of explosive growth in the coming years. This convergence makes it more important than ever for systems to be fully integrated and digitized. The iBASE Digital Manufacturing Suite provides a platform that can tie together MES, ERP, PLM and other systems to create a unified shop floor and manufacturing system that can harness technologies such as AI and maximize their value.

Continue reading Part 2 of this series, The Future of Automation, Part II: How Augmented Reality Can Transform Complex Discrete Manufacturing.

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iBase-t Recognized in IDC MarketScape Report on Manufacturing Execution System Vendors

FOOTHILL RANCH, Calif. – July 25, 2019 – iBase-t announced today that the company was positioned as a Major Player in the IDC MarketScape: Worldwide Manufacturing Execution System 2019 Vendor Assessment (doc #US42720518, February 2019). iBase-t provides software solutions for organizations in complex, highly regulated industries.

“iBase-t’s positioning as a Major Player in the IDC MarketScape: Worldwide Manufacturing Execution System 2019 Vendor Assessment highlights the strengths in our software,” said Naveen Poonian, President at iBase-t. “We are committed to filling in gaps in the manufacturing systems landscape to create the digital continuity our complex manufacturing customers demand across their manufacturing, quality and sustainment operations.”  

This IDC MarketScape report assesses software providers in the global MES market. For iBase-t in particular, the report suggests that “companies in the aerospace, defense, and ETO equipment that need OOTB, industry-specific functionalities, tight integration with PLM systems, and have no bandwidth of internal resources to manage complex industry customization should give this provider a careful look.” 

The IDC MarketScape report noted that “the core strengths of iBase-t reside in its strong vertical alignment. The company aims that customers report 85–90% of functionality desired for the industry is ready to use out of the box.”

iBase-t’s MES solution has been implemented by organizations in highly regulated industries, like Aerospace and Defense, Medical Devices, Nuclear, Industrial Equipment, Electronics, and Shipbuilding. The solution is designed to provide manufacturers with features that allow for traceability, streamline data management, and ensure compliance with regulatory standards.


To access the IDC MarketScape report, visit


About iBase-t

iBase-t is a leading provider of software solutions for complex, highly regulated industries, like Aerospace and Defense, Medical Devices, Nuclear, Industrial Equipment, Electronics, and Shipbuilding. iBase-t’s Digital Manufacturing software streamlines and integrates Manufacturing Execution System and Operations Management (MES/MOM)Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) and Enterprise Quality Management Systems (EQMS) for operations and Supplier Quality Management. iBase-t’s software is implemented by many leading industrial organizations as part of their enterprise Digital Thread initiatives.

A New Era for Space Exploration

The closure of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 2011 seemed like the end of an era. Yet since then, the sector has experienced a renaissance. SpaceX and Virgin Galactic brought much needed public attention to space travel. And now NASA has decided to return to the moon and has even set its sites on Mars. 

A major stepping stone to the achievement of this goal is the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. The Lunar Gateway will function as a lunar-orbit space station, a solar-powered communications hub, science laboratory, short-term habitation module, and holding area for rovers and other craft.

“The Gateway will give us a strategic presence on and around the Moon. It will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us explore the entire lunar surface and its resources,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We will ultimately translate that experience toward human missions to Mars.”

This moon-orbiting station is a crucial element of NASA’s Artemis program which aims to take astronauts back to the moon and land them near its south pole by 2024. The Gateway will function as a kind of staging post for manned and unmanned lunar landers. NASA aims to send crews from earth via its Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft and dock them at the Gateway. 

Fifty years after the last Apollo astronauts set foot on the moon, another man and the first women are being sent to the surface. Based on the success of those projects, the next target is Mars. Once again, the Gateway will play a major role. It is hoped that it can be harnessed to more easily propel ships towards the Red Planet. But first, the station will have to be expanded with larger quarters, docking ports and refueling stations. 

The Mars mission is likely to involve collaboration between multiple nations, agencies and companies. For example, Maxar Technologies, Blue Origin and Draper are partnering in designing, building and operating the proposed electric-propulsion-enabled concepts for the power and propulsion element of the spacecraft for the Lunar Gateway. This element will provide power, maneuvering, attitude control, communications systems and initial docking capabilities, with an initial launch on a commercial rocket targeted for late 2022. 

SSL’s 1300 platform is likely to form a central element of the new spacecraft. As the world’s most popular spacecraft platform, it provides a lightweight and high-strength structure, fuel-efficient attitude and station-keeping subsystems, high-efficiency and reliable solar arrays and batteries, and command and control subsystems. Solar electric propulsion will help contain fuel costs using a Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA) that rolls up instead of folding like an accordion. It can probably be scaled up to 200kW or perhaps even higher. 

 The components and systems that will compose these ships are the territory of low-volume, complex discrete manufacturing. They require the utmost rigor. Bringing together multiple governments, companies and systems demands a high level of integration and digitalization. Designs are proposed, modeled and reworked frequently. Even when a component or system has been finalized, there are typically many differences between as-design and as-built. And that’s where iBase-t comes in. 

iBase-t has a long track record of success in aerospace including some of the players involved in the Lunar Gateway program. We have been helping them with processes and tools to manage the manufacturing floor to achieve tighter production control, accurate tracking and tracing of materials and to fulfill the many facets of certification. The typical iBase-t customer has a highly model- and engineering-driven product that experiences a great many changes between engineering and production. This is an area where we lead the market.  

We worked closely with Virgin Orbit to help it meet aggressive deadlines by using the iBase-t Digital Manufacturing Suite to take over the management of its manufacturing floor and support an intensive ramp-up from prototype to production. We were also a NASA partner on the Space Shuttle Program for many years. 

The Lunar Gateway and related programs require a fully digitized platform that can provide real-time visibility along the entire supply chain, as well as synchronized production operations across multiple systems and business divisions, and accurate collection and reporting on all as-planned, as-built, and as-maintained data. iBase-t facilitates the journey to end-to-end supply chain digitization for complex discrete manufacturers in aerospace. As well as filling in the gaps that between PLM, ERP and other enterprise systems, it offers a way to digitize systems and processes to help NASA and its partners take another giant step for mankind.

Digital Thread Guide

Automation Driving Digital Transformation

Forrester Research analyst Craig Le Clair recently noted that automation is driving the trend towards digital transformation. Forrester characterizes automation as the tip of the digital transformation spear. 

The basic concept is that increased automation is more real and appears more attainable to many organizations than the full digitally connected enterprise vision. They recognize the value to automated processes, automating the handoff of data to analytics engines and the elimination of manual processes to both their day-to-day operations and management activities. 

Automation is still regarded, though, as a serious challenge in terms of system integration, workflow optimization and overall operational control. However, it can be broken down into a series of gradually achievable steps. As systems age and equipment nears end of life, upgrades can be done that add greater levels of automation and integration. 

In comparison, the goal of digital transformation and end-to-end digital connectivity can seem a vague and distant dream. The idea of a digital thread that ties together every facet of the organization is considered by many to be highly desirable. But getting there is another matter entirely. Thus, management is more inclined to view automation as a stepping stone to a longer-term vision. That’s why Forrester said it is impossible to overstate the impact that automation will have on digital transformation and customer experience (CX). 

One area where automation is moving at a fast and furious pace is robotic process automation (RPA). By the end of this year, that market will be worth in excess of $1 billion per year. Manufacturers in aerospace and defense are adding more and more robotics to their assembly lines, backed by process automation and higher levels of digitization in order to raise efficiency.  

However, if an enterprise focuses purely on automation through assembly and inspection robotics and believe the rest of the digital enterprise vision will fall into place, they will not get there. 

Digital manufacturing, after all, is all about the digital thread and the resulting efficiency, orchestration and optimization. Smart machines, sensors, and tooling can provide workers with real-time data about the processes they are executing. But true digital manufacturing can only be achieved by linking disparate systems and automating processes that span across all departments and functions within the value chain. By doing so, the entire product lifecycle is impacted from design to production and service. “Automation” should be viewed as more than putting robots on the production line. The “robots” behind the scene in the digital data path are also part of the automation equation for digital manufacturing—robots that are guiding data flow, guiding work execution, automating routine decisions, and orchestrating the flow of material and product through the entire value chain. 

Digital manufacturing requires integration and automated workflows between PLM, ERP, shop floor applications and equipment to enable the exchange of product-related information between digital design and physical manufacturing execution. This enables manufacturers to achieve time-to-market and volume goals, as well as realize cost savings. By integrating as-designed requirements, validation and inspection records, as-built data, as-flown data, and as-maintained data: 

  • Efficiency is raised to new heights through automated exchange of data
  • Shop floor assembly is accelerated through flexible work instructions capable of displaying 2D/3D part information, along with automated machining and tooling instructions. Perhaps laying those digital instructions on top of the physical assembly through augmented reality.
  • Costly errors due to missed or misinterpreted data can be eliminated
  • Turnaround times can be improved across the value chain via higher levels of process automation
  • Decision points are provided with real-time insight 
  • The pace of innovation is heightened 
  • Production and maintenance costs can be lowered.

Companies automating and integrating in the IT dimension are moving the needle towards digital manufacturing faster while getting immediate benefits from modern manufacturing execution systems. Recent Gartner research showed that 87% of manufacturers that implemented a Manufacturing Execution System achieved short-term benefits, and 69% of manufacturers are currently investing in modernizing their core manufacturing system.

The iBase-t Digital Manufacturing Suite facilitates greater levels of automation throughout the enterprise by filling in the gaps that exist between PLM, ERP and other enterprise systems. It integrates and automates engineering and business systems to lay the foundation for the establishment of true Digital Manufacturing.

Whitepaper: Digital Manufacturing

Escalating Trade War Could Spark Digital Manufacturing

China – U.S. tensions are big news. Every week or two, there is another headline about one side upping tariffs. Soon thereafter, the other side follows suit with a new series of tariffs. This has been going on for months. American businesses are experiencing the fallout with 25% duties imposed on equipment and goods they thought they were buying cheaply from overseas. 

But an article in Forbes by Michael Mandel offered a different perspective. He believes that rising tensions between China and the USA on trade could have far-reaching implications for U.S. manufacturers. As each side adds more tariffs, the pain increases on both sides. Chinese manufacturers lose their strongest market. U.S. companies outsourcing equipment and goods to China will be forced to look for suppliers closer to home. 

If the trade war doesn’t abate, higher prices are inevitable. And that offers a massive opportunity for digital manufacturing. U.S. manufacturing had fallen into the doldrums in many areas as it was much cheaper and easier to just import goods, components and equipment from afar. But those days may be disappearing. This geopolitical and economic shift could be the catalyst needed to re-energize the entire manufacturing sector. 

Domestic investment in manufacturing automation, robotics and digitization has been somewhat sluggish. Yet these technologies become essential if goods are to be produced at a price that makes them affordable for the home market. The absence of cheap Chinese gear could spur many more to take the plunge toward digital manufacturing. 

Despite there being many homegrown success stories out there about the value of digitization and digital manufacturing, it is still considered by some to be an area to invest in cautiously. As the trade war heightens, caution may need to be thrown to the wind in an effort to bring U.S. manufacturing prices sharply downward. 

New technology and new business models are needed to raise the profitability of domestic manufacturing production. Digital manufacturing is the obvious answer. With more and more firms forced into digitization and greater levels of automation, the far reaches of the entire supply chain will become easier to digitize. A digital thread can then be established that pervades the value chain. Instead of a whole network of small suppliers being hit with a massive bill as the price of entry into the digital manufacturing arena, the widespread nature of the technology will bring about lower costs, easier methods of implementation and simpler integration between partners. 

In tandem, an ecosystem or software suppliers, robotics specialists, Internet of Things (IoT) suppliers and digitization facilitators will emerge. This is good news for complex discrete manufacturers. They will no longer be facing a lonely road toward the digital manufacturing enterprise. 

Forced to go it alone, it would be up to them to engage their supply chains and bring them slowly and painfully forward along the path of digitization. But with U.S. manufacturing as a whole being made to face up to inefficiency, high costs and lack of profitability, digital manufacturing becomes a necessity.  

But while the supply chain gears up, complex discrete manufacturers should be taking action now to bring their own internal systems up to speed. iBaseT offers the best way for manufacturers to introduce digitization. The iBase-t Digital Manufacturing Suite seamlessly operates between IT systems such as CRM, ERP and BPM, and operational technology systems such as MES and other shop floor tools.

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