Augmented reality can impede production optimization, study finds

May 11, 2022

Production workers instructed with augmented reality (AR) glasses can work much faster than colleagues instructed with analog methods. However, an international study from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and partners found that they are less capable of internalizing their tasks and of making suggestions to improve production processes. These insights may help companies when adapting AR applications to their needs and balancing productivity gains against process optimization priorities.

Companies are increasingly using AR in production in the hope of improving productivity as well as production processes. In AR, the real world is enhanced with a computer-generated version of reality. For example, AR glasses provide employees with step-by-step guidance when assembling an electrical device by recognizing the individual components and indicating the next move. However, information has so far been lacking on whether it is worthwhile for companies to invest in AR equipment and what the strengths and weaknesses of this technology are in a production environment.

To close this gap, a team of researchers at TUM, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Landeskrankenhaus Mainz conducted field experiments at a technology company as a test of how quickly workers can perform new tasks with and without AR support, how this is influenced by the difficulty of a task, and how the use of AR affects their ability to suggest process improvements. Fifty test subjects were instructed in two new tasks of varying difficulty involved in the production of electronic devices. Half received paper-based instructions and the others were taught using AR glasses. The two groups then had to master the tasks first with and then without instructions. In a second step, all participants were asked to suggest improvements to the related production processes. The suggestions were then evaluated by company experts.

Productivity can be significantly increased

The study shows that productivity in manufacturing can be significantly improved through the use of AR. Workers learning a difficult task with AR glasses required almost 44% less time to master the job as compared with the control group. With a simple task, the difference was still close to 15%. It was also evident, however, that the test subjects in the AR group internalized the task less than their colleagues who received analog instructions. When repeating the complex task without instructions, they were 23 percent slower than the other group.

“Those who are over reliant on the technology do not internalize the information to the same extent and don’t achieve the same learning effects,” said study leader David Wuttke, a professor of supply chain management at TUM. “With AR devices, it is quite similar to GPS navigation in your car. Those who use GPS to get around in a new city will struggle to find their way on a future visit without this technology.”

Fewer advantages for companies concerned with development

The second part of the analysis shows that the use of AR glasses has a negative impact on innovation potential. The suggestions for improvement made by production workers who used printed instructions were significantly more useful than those from the AR group. “The results seem to indicate that the AR device served as a crutch that did not lead to a deeper insight into the task among workers. As a result, they were less capable of helping to optimize the process,” says Wuttke.

The researchers conclude that AR technology would be most useful at present in industries with rapid-cycle production where process optimization is complete or no longer plays an important role. Companies depending on continual development of their products will benefit less.

“For these industries, a hybrid form or smart design of AR applications might be the best solution,” Wuttke said. “For example, applications could be programmed to ask targeted questions. Or the instructions could include deliberate imperfections to encourage reflection on the part of workers. Another possibility would be to give AR glasses to some workers in order to boost productivity while others would receive analog instructions to generate better input on production processes.”

The researchers plan to conduct further investigations on how these approaches could work in real production settings. Wuttke added: “Augmented reality can make a big difference for companies – if one understands the results the technology will produce.”

The published results by David Wuttke, Ankit Upadhyay, Enno Siemsen, Alexandra Wuttke-Linnemann, titled "Seeing the Bigger Picture? Ramping up Production with the Use of Augmented Reality," in Manufacturing & Service Operations Management 2022 is available at https://doi.org/10.1287/msom.2021.1070.

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