Just a few years ago, having the option to remotely collaborate on physical equipment and products seemed like a utopian vision. The standard for most workplaces had long-been in-person attendance, and for the technical environment of production plants, onsite collaboration was critical.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we work in ways no one could have anticipated, but based on the coincidental deployment of the Microsoft HoloLens 2 (HL2) mixed reality (MR) headset at 3M during the onset of the pandemic, you might think the engineering team had the gift of foresight.
Years before the pandemic, 3M began investing in MR in 2016 when a few engineers worked toward enabling the technology during their 15% time, a program at 3M that allows employees to use a portion of their paid time to pursue innovative ideas that excite them. By early 2020, engineering was ready to deploy Microsoft’s MR headset, which overlays interactive digital content in the real world, as a remote communication tool.
The timing aligned with the onset of a remote work revolution brought by the pandemic.
“Needless to say, our deployment timeline got accelerated,” said Adam Hintzman, Advanced Design Engineer and AR VR Technology Leader of 3M Design and Engineering Solutions. “Fortunately, our partnership with Microsoft secured 3M an allotment of headsets when it was released.”
Using 3M’s disruptive technology process, these devices were quickly supplied to 3Mers around the globe, which enabled them to engage in complex situations with vendors, customers and coworkers.
Between the travel restrictions and personal protective equipment (PPE) crisis due to the pandemic, the HL2 assisted respirator production at 3M plants by accelerating communication and limiting exposure. An engineer wearing the headset in one manufacturing site can collaborate with engineers at another location to livestream manufacturing lines, samples and other equipment.
“It creates a much more collaborative environment,” said Elizabeth Harris, disruptive technology program lead. “In the past, if the plant had an issue, the engineer took photos, sent an email or made a phone call to equipment vendors or internal resources like a designer. Thanks to this technology, it bypasses a lot of that iterative administration work and allows for faster problem solving.”
In addition to supporting production employees, the HL2 enabled virtual customer engagement throughout the pandemic when it was not possible to do so in person. The team used the HL2 device for new process development, quality training and monitoring product performance during qualification trials.
“HoloLens 2 enables our global robotics application engineering experts to remotely visit more customer sites and more efficiently collaborate in understanding these customers’ greatest abrasive needs,” said Scott Barnett, head of Global Robotics & Automation Application Engineering. “Further, the social distancing that HL2 allows, creates a safer environment for the 3M team and our customers.”
3M plans to continue using the HL2 headset, even when travel restrictions are loosened. The technology is a key communication tool to effectively collaborate, troubleshoot and interact on a global stage, according to Adam.
“Two years ago, the thought of virtually connecting employees across the globe was a pipe dream – something that would have too many roadblocks to work,” said Adam. “But with the innovative minds on this project, we pushed through these hurdles and never questioned why this wouldn’t work, but rather, asked how this could work.”
To learn more about 3M’s mixed reality, augmented reality and virtual reality solutions, visit go.3M.com/arvr.