A $100 million plane pulls up in front of you, ready for the final stage of assembly. When you're done, the jet will leave the factory floor for a life of cruising at more than 1,000 mph and dodge enemy missiles. So you'd better build it right.
Until recently, Lockheed Martin needed a team of technicians with years of training to wrench on its sophisticated machines. But now, in the advanced factory where the company is building the F-35, engineers are using augmented reality glasses and educational software that provide real-time visuals during the plane's assembly, ensuring that every part on the warplane is in the right place.
Lockheed is collaborating with NGRAIN on a trial in which employees wear $700 , transparent glasses with a front-facing camera that uses motion and depth sensors to overlay images onto the technician's working environment. When a glasses-wearing engineer is installing a brake component on the landing gear, they look at the wheel and the chunky glasses show renderings of every bolt and cable, with the part numbers and ordered instructions showing where each part fits. It's like being able to see a hologram of the Legos you need to assemble a project overlaid with the instructions, as opposed to looking down and checking the instruction manual.
NGRAIN, the Vancouver-based company that makes the software, claims that the combination of these glasses and their software allows engineers to work 30 percent faster, and with accuracy up to 96 percent. Those numbers are huge for a company like Lockheed Martin. If even one F-35 fighter jet needs additional repairs and can't be sold or deployed, that costs the manufacturer big piles of money.
Using augmented reality on fighter jets means that people with a minimum amount of training can do their jobs consistently well, which translates to less cost and time for training. By doing, rather than just listening in a classroom or reading a manual, the retention of knowledge doubles. "[It's] the difference is between passively observing and actively doing," says Barry Po, director of product management at NGRAIN.
AR also accelerates the repair process. This system builds on tablet software that NGRAIN built for Lockheed to replace pen-and-paper notation. It allowed engineers to annotate a 3D model of the plane, meaning repairs that'd take days now take hours. With the glasses, those annotations can appear in a person's field of view. "Lockheed wants to make it so that when people walk into the environment," Po says, "they have all the information right before their eyes." The extra advantage of the glasses? "[They] free up the hands of the people who are doing the job."
The AR glasses are still in trial mode on the Lockheed factory floor. Getting this technology onto military bases, where Lockheed technicians handle repairs to keep the planes battle-ready, will be slightly more difficult. The military doesn't allow cameras on those bases, so the front-facing optical sensor is currently verboten.
No matter the rules, augmented reality is coming. Other NGRAIN clients include Raytheon, the missile manufacturer behind the Tomahawk, and oil and gas clients Po declined to share. These are all businesses invested in reducing errors and having employees who can learn quickly. Augmented reality is a tool that achieves both.
Wearables like Google Glass and these Epson glasses have been rightfully : tools that are too obtrusive (and uncool) to fit into everyday life, but have the potential to improve specific jobs. If Lockheed, a company that sold $45.4 billion worth of sophisticated machinery in 2013, thinks that's the case, then we'd expect other institutions to follow suit.