Developing virtual reality into an industrial resource

Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) is involved in a project that is developing virtual tools for industry use. It employs digitalisation to create appealing jobs in European factory environments and improve Europe's position as a production location.

The project introduces information and communication technology into the traditional factory environment to improve the flexibility and efficiency of production processes and the innovation capability and problem-solving skills of employees. The project is currently focusing on software for tablets, virtual reality headsets, smartphones and smartwatches. The first prototypes of the tablet software are already in trial use in the project's partner companies.

"The study includes six international companies that produce parts for the automobile industry. What the companies have in common are multistage production processes where some or all operations are partly controlled manually," explains Associate Professor Lea Hannola from LUT.

The researchers interviewed employees of the companies to pinpoint the greatest challenges and problems in the multistage manufacturing process from the employee perspective. The study indicates that manual process control and problem-solving stand out as development targets.

"For example, if there is a malfunction in the production process, the employee usually needs to walk around in the factory to solve the problem. Solutions are sought from manuals or from more experienced employees even though the problem could be dealt with without delay or moving about in the factory."

The digital tools being developed can also be replicated in other fields with similar production processes.

"We are planning our services and products in a way that enables their use in any company – we are creating modules that can be combined in different ways to meet the needs of each individual company."

The first stage involves the testing of tablets, and the following virtual reality headsets. Also smartphones and smartwatches will be examined. The aim is to increase employees' job satisfaction, innovation capability and problem-solving ability.

"Digital tools enable the more efficient utilisation of so-called tacit knowledge in the factory and recording it into a system, which may enhance employee learning, promote process development and improve communication. All this may raise productivity in production processes."

According to Hannola, the first user experiences of the prototypes have been positive. The employees who tested the first prototypes will be asked for feedback during the summer and early autumn.

"We will explore the effects of the new tools on practical work and the working environment, and changes needed as a result in the working environment and culture. Job satisfaction seems to have improved simply by providing employees an opportunity to take part in this study."

According to the researchers, industry adopts digital tools rather slowly. The tools themselves do not necessarily require a great investment, but the existing infrastructure must accommodate them.

"If the internet connection is slow or the factory does not have one, the digital tools cannot reach their full potential. If the infrastructure is sufficient, digitalisation will surely increase rapidly."

The duration of the FACTS4WORKERS project is four years. It includes 15 European partners and is worth 7.9 million euros. Funding has been granted by the Horizon 2020 framework programme, which is a research and innovation funding programme of the EU.

Further information:

Lea Hannola, LUT, lea.hannola@lut.fi, +358 40 822 3982