A small wearable device taking industrial assembly into the digital era

Some innovations may be as light as 35 grams – yet, they are able to reshape workflows of entire industries. One of these innovations is Konica Minolta’s recently launched AIRe Lens: this wearable, head-mounted augmented reality (AR) device is designed to provide operators with step-by-step guidance through the assembling process of industrial components or remote assistance for maintenance processes. This offers big advantages, particularly in the manufacturing and maintenance of complex machines, as it enables the digitalisation of processes that are frequently still paper-based and inefficient. We spoke to Zdeněk Vrbka, Innovation Manager at Konica Minolta, to learn more about this smart glasses technology, the way it works, its benefits and application fields as well as his perspective on the future of work in assembly and maintenance in industrial companies.


In a nutshell – what is the AIRe Lens? And why would a manufacturing company decide to work with it?

Manufacturing processes today are becoming increasingly complex, with sophisticated products in different versions being assembled based on a specific end-customer requirement. Yet, at the same time, while digitalisation is reshaping and improving many processes in industry, it currently often stops right there: with guidance for workers at the assembly line for such complex products. In the past, this had very practical reasons. As workers need their mobility and hands free, particularly when assembling sophisticated and bulky machinery, stationary or handheld digital devices like mounted screens or tablets are highly impractical. This left them with a paper-based and therefore highly suboptimal solution. Additionally, it makes significant training and mentoring necessary, driving up costs. And it can be a source of quality issues, which is very annoying for our customers in the manufacturing industry. This is where our AIRe Lens comes in. It is a head-mounted AR device, meaning the operator can wear it just like a pair of glasses, leaving him or her with both hands free, while providing all information and guidance he or she needs – step by step.
We are delivering a solution specifically developed for application purposes in industry. It has been created to help manufacturing companies truly seize the productivity and efficiency potential that digitalisation provides.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by having developed this solution specifically for applications in industry?

This is reflected in both the design of the hardware and software we provide, but equally in the process of implementing it at the customer’s premises. First, with regard to the hardware: our AIRe Lens was designed to integrate into the workflows of the operator as seamlessly as possible. It is all about practicability and is not designed to create “wow effects” that would only make it heavier and less usable. The device is 35 grams light, can be worn for an entire work shift and can be used in combination with safety gear or prescription glasses. The lens itself has more than 70% transparency, ensuring that it does not block the view of the user. And the device is controlled via simple gestures or the push of a button. Thanks to its long battery life, it lasts seven hours and is hot-swappable.

Practicability and ease of use were also our guiding principles in creating the software: Konica Minolta developed a highly user-friendly management platform, which makes it really simple and straightforward to create and adjust content. After the initial set-up, only major adaptations to the system have to be done by our expert team to connect our platform with customer’s core systems. All product features and functions are optimised for high work efficiency and integration into existing processes.

Now with regard to the implementation: we have experienced local service teams on the ground, available to effectively and quickly assist with the execution of the otherwise long and complex set-up process. And we are there for our customer all the way. We offer professional consulting to evaluate the benefits of such an AR solution specifically for the company’s environment and identify best use cases. We derive a hypothesis from this initial analysis, set up a pilot project with a defined, limited time-period and budget, and provide the consulting, guidance and infrastructure needed in this step. Based on the outcome of the pilot, the decision makers have enough information to decide on the deployment of the solution in their daily operations. And we support them here as well.

As an operator, what is it like working with such a device? What do I see?

The AIRe Lens was basically designed around its user. The system consists of a headpiece with the display and a control unit. The headpiece is worn similar to a pair of glasses, and the system projects digital information necessary for performing a specific task through a transparent optical prism or Holographical Optical Element (HOE) to reach the eye. The image is equivalent to a 42-inch screen with Full HD resolution placed 2.5 metres in front of the worker. The device is easily controlled through simple gestures or through the push of a button on the control unit, displaying the information needed for exactly the step at hand.

The data shared with these devices might be quite sensitive – how do you ensure its security?

Ensuring data security of the whole system and compliance with the changing legislative landscape such as the GDPR are absolutely crucial for us in both the development of the solution as well as the implementation at the customer’s premises. Here, too, we work closely together with our customer’s dedicated departments to ensure the highest level of security in operation.

Was the AIRe Lens tested under real conditions? What were the results?

Yes, and let me say being able to develop and test this solution in close cooperation with our customers as partners provided highly valuable insights. We have completed extensive test runs with companies like Honeywell and Siemens at their production facilities – under real working conditions. We have seen some very positive results with applications on work processes at the factories. The feedback we received, describes the AIRe Lens as a high-quality tool that helps to significantly reduce errors in manufacturing and maintenance processes and cuts training time and costs drastically. To give a concrete example: in one of the pilot cases conducted at the Siemens production facility in Brno, Czech Republic, the use of the AIRe Lens reduced the time of the assembly process by 42%. This is an outstanding result during the assembly process of a complex industrial part. And we saw a very positive effect in training in particular. Here the potential is huge as well. Pilot phases with other customers yielded very positive results and feedback as well – now we are launching this product so that we can deliver solutions for daily operation.

Konica Minolta is aiming at becoming a big player in Digital Manufacturing, and the AIRe Lens seems to fit the picture. But why should a customer turn to Konica Minolta?

We at Konica Minolta have a long history as a production and manufacturing company ourselves. Therefore, we have a deep understanding of the challenges the fourth industrial revolution is creating. With digital manufacturing technology taking over production floors, processes are changing fundamentally – and it is becoming increasingly important to be able to stay ahead of these developments. Further, we see ourselves as a solution provider for modern technology and services, especially for IT-driven processes. Combined with our extensive expertise in optical systems, Konica Minolta was able to develop not only the AIRe Lens for assembly and maintenance support, but also other solutions for digital manufacturing. Further, Konica Minolta’s customers benefit from the company’s strong international set-up in all fields such as R&D, production, service and customer care. This makes Konica Minolta a reliable and strong partner for larger, international projects, too.

In your opinion: will devices like the AIRe Lens remain a specialised tool for some industries? Or do you think they will change the way work is done in manufacturing industries in general?

Digital manufacturing technology like the AIRe Lens brings modern connectivity to production halls and accelerates the possibilities for modern production significantly. The technology we see now is only the starting point for connected production. Getting better results and supporting people who work in production industries with increased safety, productivity, user friendliness and therefore efficiency is a trend we will see throughout all companies. We at Konica Minolta are convinced and determined that we can help society at large by solving problems and providing solutions through innovation.


About Konica Minolta Business Solutions Europe

Konica Minolta Business Solutions Europe GmbH, based in Langenhagen, Germany, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Konica Minolta Inc., Tokyo, Japan. Konica Minolta enables its clients to champion the digital era: with its unique imaging expertise and data processing capabilities, Konica Minolta creates relevant solutions for its customers and solves issues faced by society. As a provider of comprehensive IT services, Konica Minolta delivers consultancy and services to optimise business processes with workflow automation and implements solutions in the field of IT infrastructure and IT security as well as cloud environments. Konica Minolta was awarded the prestigious “Buyers Lab PaceSetter award for Smart Workplace Vision” from Keypoint Intelligence” as the only vendor in its industry thanks to its forward-looking vision of the future of work and investment in innovative technology. Being a strong partner for the production and industrial printing market, Konica Minolta offers business consulting, state-of-the-art technology and software and, in 2017, was the production printing market leader for the tenth consecutive year in Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa (InfoSource). The hardware portfolio covers light and mid production as well as industrial printing machines. Konica Minolta Marketing Services provides value added services that intelligently link print and digital marketing in an effective and efficient way. In the healthcare sector, Konica Minolta drives digitalisation of clinical workflows and offers a broad range of next-level diagnostic solutions. Through its Business Innovation Centre in London and four R&D laboratories in Europe, Konica Minolta brings innovation forward by collaborating with its customers as well as academic, industrial and entrepreneurial partners. Konica Minolta Business Solutions Europe is represented by subsidiaries and distributors in more than 80 countries in Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. With almost 9,900 employees (as of April 2018), Konica Minolta Europe earned net sales of over EUR 2.37 billion in financial year 2017/18. 

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