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Jennifer Markarian is manufacturing editor of Pharmaceutical Technology.
Smart glasses enhance remote troubleshooting and process management for pharmaceutical manufacturing.
Just as emails can be accessed anywhere from a smart phone, pharmaceutical manufacturing process data can now be made accessible remotely through new network solutions. And remote access is not limited to data on a screen. Smart glasses have moved beyond a consumer novelty to a business tool that can be particularly valuable in manufacturing. One of the primary uses today in pharmaceutical manufacturing is telepresence, by which remote personnel can literally see what an on-site person is viewing and can perform remote troubleshooting, for example. Both large pharmaceutical companies and CMOs are using or experimenting with smart glasses for various uses, including troubleshooting, maintenance, and training.
Smart glasses-the hardware
The smart glasses concept was popularized by the Google Glass for consumers, but several other companies are also producing smart glasses. Some of these are believed to be better than Google Glass for industrial applications in the functions of information access, real-time communication, and documentation, according to a Lux Research Report published in December 2015 (1), which looked at enterprise deployments of smart glasses. Some glasses on the market for industry include Epson Moverio, Vuzix M100, Osterhout Design Group (ODG) R-7, and others.
Developers continue to improve the glasses. “How to balance between a long battery life time and the limited available space within a pair of smart glasses will continue to be a major challenge for smart glass developers,” notes Tony Sun, the lead analyst of the Lux Research report. “Developers also need to improve the durability of the overall device construct for industrial environments, such as incorporation of smart glasses into a helmet.”
Other companies are developing the applications needed to make smart glasses useful in manufacturing, including pharmaceutical manufacturing. Pristine focuses on the business value found in “virtualizing the expert.” “Smart glasses can multiply the availability of experts, because an operator in a plant can wear smart glasses and be connected to the expert in another plant or an office,” notes Pristine’s Lucas Schlager. Connecting two people with a video stream is relatively straightforward, but making this connection for hands-on workers in the field, such as in a manufacturing environment, comes with specific needs. “First, the user needs to easily contact the expert. Problems are usually unplanned, so a preset conference set up via email may not provide a fast enough response,” says Schlager. “Apps are designed to perform ‘pre-call magic’ to get the call from the field to the expert quickly, while the operator is in the plant with gloves on and can’t dial a phone, but can say out loud, ‘Need help.’ After connection, the expert may need to demonstrate to the operator what might need to be done, by drawing on top of the video, for example.” Data about the call or about the problem and solution can be recorded for evaluation to make the system work better or to identify trends in manufacturing problems. “We are on the ‘slope of enlightenment’ of adoption of these technologies. Early adopters have experienced the benefits of virtualized experts and others are starting to try it,” observes Schlager. He suggests that augmented reality or immersive experience (e.g., having instructions pop up on the glasses based on what the operator is viewing) will grow in the near future as smart-glass technology becomes more lightweight and higher resolution and as enterprises gain more experience with the technology.
Apprentice Field Suite, which uses smart glasses and other mobility technology to improve processes for its pharmaceutical and biotechnology clients, designed three technology modules specifically for pharmaceutical manufacturing and R&D. The Tandem module allows an engineer to have a “telepresence” for remote troubleshooting, which minimizes travel and gives instant access to a problem. “The operator in the facility will wear the glasses and the engineer at a remote location can see the problem that the operator is looking at; this feature currently is being used at all of our global pharma clients,” explains Gary Pignata, partner at Apprentice. “If necessary, an equipment manufacturer or subject-matter expert can also be given simultaneous access. Additional tools allow the remote user to ‘draw’ on the field of vision of the glasses-wearer (e.g., to show what button to push or to indicate the specific part being discussed) so that communication can be visual as well as verbal.” The glasses are also useful for a CMO–client project relationship, notes Pignata, "A CMO protects the proprietary nature of other projects by only turning the glasses on for a specific client, while at the same time allowing that client access to their process without traveling." The Gauge module can alert operators to the condition of equipment (i.e., if a reactor is in use) and capture data from analog (and other) gauges. A Manuals component can be used during training or maintenance, for example, so that safety notices and standard operating procedures can be viewed with the glasses in a heads-up display, allowing the users' hands to remain free to perform operations. Apprentice co-founder Angelo Stracquatanio remarks, "We are seeing significant efficiency gains and operational improvements at each of our four top-10 pharma clients, as well as the other biotechs, CMOs, and equipment manufacturers we work with".
Software provider Vital Enterprises sees the main advantage of smart glasses in manufacturing as allowing hands-free operation with access to information and remote collaborators. The company currently has commercial applications in air and space assembly and in medical, and is beginning to work with pharmaceutical manfuacturers. “We are working with pharmaceutical innovation centers to gestate this new technology and deploy it more broadly,” says Ash Eldritch, co-founder and chief science officer of Vital Enterprises. “Companies are deploying at the pilot stage to look for cost and efficiency benefits. The gains are largest for geographically distributed teams that can benefit from telepresence and for cases where there are long process checklists, such as in technology transfer procedures.” Another possible use is smart laboratory notebooks. “Some are using electronic notebooks already, but smart glasses have the benefit of being worn. They can also capture point-of-view video and audio notes that can be transcribed,” says Eldritch. Similarly, in a manufacturing environment, the glasses can capture expert knowledge for training or for quality checks. Smart glasses are currently being used for hands-free instructional support, with text or schematics put into the wearer’s view while they are carrying out a complex task. “Next we plan to incorporate videos, in addition to the currently available static images and text that can be read to the wearer. The challenge is creating and transferring the video content, because the traditional way of doing things is text based,” says Eldritch.
Smart glass technology has only been in existence for a few years, and experts note there is still relatively little knowledge in the market about the potential benefits. Even so, the technology continues to get smarter. “Smart glasses are advancing in ‘contextually awareness’-rather than the operator telling the glasses what checklist is needed, for example, the glasses will leverage the sensors in the industrial internet of things (IIoT) to sense where the user is standing, who they are, and what task needs to be performed,” says Eldritch. “The convergence of IIoT and augmented reality will be the next step forward from where the technology is now, as a head-mounted display. In five to ten years, smart glasses will be able to project digital imagery directly onto physical objects, meshing digital information seamlessly and intuitively into the world around us,” he predicts.
The use of smart glasses is expected to grow. “We expect the use of smart glasses will eventually expand from manufacturing to other roles or functions within the same company, such as customer service and online sales support,” predicts Sun. “For this to happen, smart glasses first need to scale up within manufacturing roles by improving ergonomics, learnability, and data safety.”