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A manufacturer’s guide to… AR & VR

I’ve worked across different areas of design for 25 years, spanning graphics, web, user interface and experiential design through, more recently to XR:- Extended reality which essentially encompasses VR – Virtual Reality and AR – Augmented Reality.

Running the “Game and App Design” degree at University of Sunderland cemented my interest in the potential of VR, I could only see it growing, improving and becoming central to digital communication. 

Applying these same skills across industrial and manufacturing contexts reinforced my view as to the value it offers. For example, accelerating training, enhancing design review, facilitating remote collaboration. AR and 3D scanning, share the same upward trajectory, adoption is growing and we are seeing increasingly innovative and effective adoption of these. Part of my role is in helping SME’s understand and identify how these technologies can be applied to improve their process.

Advances in the XR sector are rapid, in respect of both software and hardware solutions, alongside a lower cost point, this is broadening sector adoption. VR and AR are mature technologies. At its inception 25+ years ago, VR was an industrial application technology – bespoke computers were needed to create experiences and run it. Advances now mean there is more processing power to drive both VR and AR creation and the devices to run them. AR can be delivered on smartphones and tablets, whilst standalone VR headsets cost as little as £400. Affordability has democratised delivery.

There’s a better understanding of VR/ AR and how they can support core industrial and manufacturing processes. VR is increasingly used for accelerating training, creating digital twins, collaborative design review and production planning at 1:1 scale. AR aids field service support and predictive maintenance, drawing on IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) data for maintenance monitoring, asset tracking, and mapping 3D models to the physical world.

The evolution of computer processing has been key. GPU processing hugely improves rendering and frame rates, vastly enhancing the experience. VR experiences feel more realistic, AR tracking is more stable. Headset cameras map experiences to the physical space of the viewer. Increasing use of hand tracking eliminates the need for controllers, voice recognition leaves operatives free to work as they normally would, ‘gesture free’.  Haptic technology, with its induced ‘forced feedback’, is also improving.

Crossover and inter-connectivity across technologies is also driving things forward; the ability to bring 3D scanning into both VR and AR at scale, to compare CAD against physical parts, or to conduct remote design reviews.  All of these can prove invaluable and cost effective.

Using both data – pulling information into experiences in real-time, and AI for calculating and rendering events in real-time – are ever evolving and being applied to simulation for true digital twinning.

Sectors with the biggest development and investment budgets have been those quickest to embrace, notably Aeronautics and Automotive. They can deploy at scale and have the infrastructure to support and develop ‘services’ through R&D. The ROI – return on investment – is easier to identify and they can factor ongoing cost into their budgets.

It’s harder for SMEs who must prioritise investment in new technology. It’s not simply financial, there are many misconceptions, not least the perceived cost, that make firms pause. Many don’t understand how they’d use VR and AR. It’s part of my role to help companies understand this and identify ROI.

In my role, no two projects are the same. We helped a company visualise a digital prototype design for a standing desk at scale using VR and AR. Harnessed AR on modular building site platforms as a visualisation tool for construction planning.  Captured large area scans of factories and took these into VR where they can be moved and edited. Used AR to break down complex assembly sequences to improve operative understanding.

Globally, investment in XR technology is strong, pushing the technology ever further, there are no signs of this changing.

The big tech companies, Apple, Meta, Windows, Samsung, Google etc. continue to invest heavily.  As a result there’s a number of development/ delivery platforms: ArKit, ArCore, MRTK, OpenXR, ioX, major vendors are fighting for market share. Rather than standardisation, I envisage increasing niche specialisms and AI and/ or data will be pivotal to VR and AR applications within the industrial and manufacturing sectors. 

Digital transformation is a hot topic, AI and data is at the heart of this; as VR and AR prove effective ways of visualising, retrieving and using these, adoption will be more widespread as part of the larger ‘toolkit’ rather than standalone technology.

Manufacturers urged to apply for funding before it’s too late

Manufacturers urged to apply for funding before it’s too late

The SAM Project is urging the region’s manufacturers to apply for grant funding before it’s too late.

Hundreds of businesses have received grants of up to £50,000 from the Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project at the University of Sunderland since its launch in 2018.

Totalling over £1million, the grants have helped businesses – ranging from sole traders to those with over 100 employees – embrace the latest technology and improve processes, leading to the creation of hundreds of jobs and boosting the regional economy by tens of millions of pounds.

And with the second round of the grant fund closing this month, the programme is urging businesses to apply for funding before the February 1 deadline.

Roger O’Brien, Project & Technical Lead at the SAM Project, said: “Over the past four years we’ve seen hundreds of manufacturers benefit from our grant funding and technical support, from companies investing in robotics to cutting-edge machinery and VR equipment.

“The embracing of such new technologies hasn’t just led to increased profits, either. An impact report following the first phase of the SAM Project revealed that it had helped create over 290 jobs and add in excess of £47.1million in gross value to the region’s economy, so it has had a profound impact.

“However, all good things must come to an end, which is why we are urging the region’s manufacturers who have not yet applied for funding from phase two of the project to apply before it’s too late.”

The matched grant funding can be used to support capital/ product validation, tooling and overcoming other financial inhibitors, unblocking strategic development of both product and processes within a manufacturing business.

One business that has benefited from funding from the SAM Project is soft drink manufacturer Clearly Drinks, based on Southwick Industrial Estate in Sunderland.

After receiving a grant from the SAM Project, the company was able to purchase a new pasteurisation unit and nitrogen dosing system which led to the creation of 10 new jobs and helped the company land its largest contract to date with a national wholesaler.

Chief executive Mick Howard, who joined the company in 2018, said: “The support from SAM was fantastic. The process was super-simple and allowed us to not only tap into funding to help de-risk our investment, but also receive the technical expertise required to ensure we maximise the potential of the new equipment and technology.

“For a business like us, in the current landscape, it can be quite hard tapping into funding and support when you’re looking to scale and the team at the SAM Project really went above and beyond to help us.”

As well as providing grant funding, the SAM Project has also brought together a team of manufacturing experts with over 250 years of industry experience to provide free, expert support to the region’s businesses.

It has also invested millions of pounds into establishing a series of state-of-the-art test factories at the University of Sunderland’s Industry Centre, boasting 3D printers, I4 rigs and VR/AR equipment and software to encourage SME engagement with advanced technology.

Roger added: “Whether you’re overcoming challenges or identifying new opportunities to grow, the likelihood is that our team have been there and done it, and if they haven’t, you can guarantee that they won’t stop until they’ve helped you engineer a solution to it, so I’d recommend any business wanting to tap into their knowledge to get in touch while they can.”

The Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project is a £10.9m project to support the implementation of product and process development and the introduction of technology within the SME manufacturing base in the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NE LEP) area.

The programme is a collaboration between ERDF, which provided £5.77m in funding (£2.6million from 2014-2020 and £3.1million from 2020-2023) and the University of Sunderland, which manages and, alongside industry, has invested £5.15m into the delivery of this project.

For more information on the SAM Project’s grant funding and technical support, contact Dionne Clark at