VP of manufacturing, technology and innovation at Jabil. Over 20 years of experience helping global teams deploy cutting-edge manufacturing.
For the past five years, excluding the last five months, I have worked at a high-tech lab co-located in a Silicon Valley innovation center. Going to work was an opportunity to be fully immersed in a continuous learning environment with cutting-edge technologies and some of the best minds in engineering, science and manufacturing. Until, of course, the day we shifted to a work-from-home model.
Overnight, we were separated from each other as well as our vital lab hardware, software and tools. Yet we still are developing dozens of critical manufacturing processes, many of which have been transferred, deployed and audited in factories and facilities all over the world. How did we move on despite the pandemic? To ensure seamless collaboration and accelerate innovation, we collectively reached for our augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) headsets.
These tools already have proven indispensable for training production-line operators while guiding them through complex manufacturing operations. In Singapore, for instance, a team of engineers working in our additive manufacturing center uses AR to reduce training time by 50% on complex 3D printers. Similarly, AR helps speed maintenance instruction training and facilitates remote support.
Building Cyber-Physical Bridges
During Covid-19 office closures, AR/VR adoption surged as global teams at all types of companies sought new ways to connect people, places and things. The semiconductor industry, among other top tech sectors, embraced AR to help maintain machines on factory floors. For example, Porsche technicians used three times more AR in February and March alone as dealership technicians pulled in remote experts to help solve problems that could not be easily diagnosed.
Aside from typical remote training and maintenance applications, everyday use of AR/VR to boost productivity is growing at legions of tech companies, including Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook. As organizations extend and expand work-from-home policies, bridging physical, technological and communications gaps are hugely important. The same rules apply for innovation centers, especially as persistent travel restrictions dramatically alter how we interact with them going forward.
Each physical experience will need its own virtual counterpart that aligns and complements it to transfer knowledge while fostering a culture of continuous learning. This not only will transform how we currently work and learn in traditional office environments, but it will dramatically alter the very nature of innovation centers.
Innovation Without Boundaries
Instead of envisioning innovation centers as standalone destinations that showcase exhibits of past accomplishments, they will come to be seen as crucial cogs in an ever-turning wheel of technologies, advancements and learnings. As much as I enjoyed visiting 3M’s Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota (mostly because I got to see firsthand the innovations behind Post-It Notes and the synthetic materials used for the soles of Neil Armstrong’s moon-walking boots), I now realize a virtual visit would have been equally rewarding.
The world becomes much more accessible when AR/VR is used to close gaps and cross boundaries. In the future, our virtual conduits will connect explorers, engineers and entrepreneurs at factories and individual labs worldwide to examine theories, stress-test processes, and engage in out-of-the-box thinking.
I foresee a group of virtual guides who can help expand our vision of what is possible by bringing together innovation center employees, visitors and partners for new experiences across time and space. If that sounds a little too sci-fi, then imagine the power of having your own personal avatar that immerses you fully into experiential learning.
Advancing Innovation With Avatars
I cannot wait to work with my avatar, who I am confident will be a tremendous innovation partner. I’m excited for the day when applications like the one from Spatial let me create a lifelike avatar and work right alongside him. “Avatar Dan,” as I will call him, can take me into the middle of a new product design site in Shanghai after stopping by our learning academy in Marcianise, Italy, to observe breakthroughs in optical communications. My globetrotting avatar and I will have access to the latest hardware, software and tools needed to develop factory-of-the-future breakthroughs of all kinds.
What’s more, my personal avatar and I will work in parallel (sometimes in simultaneous) workstreams to balance both physical and virtual experiences. Bidirectional input will flow easily and organically as we coordinate and collaborate with other physical and virtual teams in other innovation centers and labs, on factory floors and at customer and partner locations around the globe.
Ultimately, we will create a huge innovation sandbox that will make it easier to share knowledge and create a robust talent pipeline to speed the delivery of manufacturing advancements into global factories. And not only will my avatar be highly creative and productive, but he will be fashion-forward too, especially now that avatars are joining forces with leading fashion brands, like Louis Vuitton and Gucci.
The more I think about it, the more excited I get about working with Gucci-attired Avatar Dan — I hope it happens soon.
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