VR/AR technology is expected to improve the efficiency and safety of manufacturing processes.
Since their invention, robots have been considered tools that aim to help humans mainly in manufacturing processes. Their employment in factories has increased the production efficiency, and although robots have shown various benefits in terms of human health and safety, their acquisition remains limited.
One reason is that robot owners cannot risk the machine integrity to unsafe manipulation because of its high cost. The second reason is that industrial robots are conceived to automate a repetitive process rather than a customizable task. Thus, if some level of customization is required, the robot needs to be trained in an exhausting process that not only might take several days but also exposes the robot to failures and damages due to either human inexperience, unexpected robot behavior or unforeseen circumstances.
These issues are often related to the lack of information that goes beyond human senses. For example, it is hard, if not impossible, for an operator to predict the robot trajectory, and it is even more complicated if collision avoidance is considered. In this context, implementing an immersive platform that simulates the robotic cell might be a good solution to minimize risks. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are technological tools that can be exploited to recreate virtual scenarios as well as enhance human sensory capabilities.
The VR/AR market value reached US$6 billion in 2019, and this technology is quickly being applied to the robotics field. VR/AR allows people to experience surreal atmospheres indoors such as an industrial environment, but more importantly a robotic cell.
ITRI engineers are working on an immersive environment that emulates not only the functionality of an industrial robotic arm but also the working elements that are invisible to human eyes. For example, inside the VR/AR environment, operators can see the robot’s work envelope and check the motion paths. Also, virtual objects can be added to simulate the interaction with the robot. Simulation in the virtual environment reduces the risk of damage to the robot’s integrity because several analyses are run before commanding the real robotic arm.
VR/AR technologies are not limited to recreating environments; they also allow innovation in manufacturing processes. An immersive robotic environment can serve as a teaching platform for applications such as painting or polishing, where the operator can easily interact in the virtual environment and create a customized motion path, evaluate a robot’s performance in simulation, and carry out troubleshooting. This makes the process more intuitive and aims to reduce robot training time as well as wasted resources. A task that takes hours such as creating the robot path, can be drastically reduced in the virtual environment. VR/AR could also be employed in data collection for artificial intelligence applications. In the era of AI, collecting a considerable amount of reliable data is actually a complex task. The more specific the process is, the harder it would be to get the data. Replicating a process using VR/AR would minimize the investment to acquire this data.
VR/AR technology is expected to improve the efficiency and safety of manufacturing processes while enhancing human sensory capabilities. Its popularity and the trend to become a cheaper technology makes VR/AR one of the options to be considered in future developments of human-robot collaboration.
Andrés Gaona is an associate researcher working at ITRI. Raised in Ecuador, he was educated in mechatronics engineering, and moved to Taiwan to study artificial intelligence. His specialities are robot manipulators, deep learning and optimization. When not sitting in the office, Andres enjoys playing soccer, practicing bouldering and going on hikes.