Augmented Reality to Revolutionize How Companies Manage Supply Chains, Says MIT Researcher

Augmented Reality to Revolutionize How Companies Manage Supply Chains, Says MIT Researcher
By Sara Castellanos. Source: WSJ.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Hologram-like images and virtual reality could revolutionize the way corporations solve problems within their supply chains, because data that would otherwise be obscured in databases and complex mathematical models would be easier to visualize, says a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Matthias Winkenbach, an MIT researcher with a Ph.D. in economics, envisions a future where supply chain managers wearing augmented or virtual reality headsets could make quicker decisions, save money and maximize their productivity.

Augmented reality superimposes digital content including hologram-like images onto a user’s view of the real world. Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of an environment. Dr. Winkenbach shared possible scenarios for both technologies.

“A few years down the road we believe you could take this functionality anywhere.

—Dr. Matthias Winkenbach, MIT

For example, he said, a supply chain manager who would normally run a traffic simulation model in a computer could wear an augmented reality headset, tap on a hologram-like image of a truck in the field, and a dashboard display could show data ranging from items in the truck to customer addresses and real-time weather and traffic conditions.

Supply chain managers interested in analyzing performance problems with conveyer belts in warehouses overseas could wear a virtual reality headset and immerse themselves in the real-time environment to solve problems without spending time and money traveling to the physical location.

Those scenarios are still at least three to five years away, but augmented and virtual reality would be a “more rich way” for supply chain managers to visualize information and understand problems, he said.

“A few years down the road we believe you could take this functionality anywhere. You’d just need a decent internet connection and an AR headset to pull up any … supply chain and logistics data anywhere in the world for whoever wants it,” said Dr. Winkenbach, director at MIT’s Megacity Logistics Lab at the Center for Transportation and Logistics.

He spoke Tuesday at MIT’s annual Crossroads Conference, along with other MIT scientists and professors, who gave presentations about additive manufacturing, blockchain and other technologies that could transform supply chain management.

To that end, he’s embarking on building a Visual Analytics Lab on MIT’s campus, where corporations and researchers could experiment with visualizing supply chain-related data using technologies including augmented and virtual reality.

The lab is expected to be open for research and experimentation to both corporations and researchers across MIT departments beginning late 2017.

Technologies that could allow supply chain managers to see and experience problems in the field without actually being there could be game-changing because global supply chains are expensive to run, said Tom Linton, chief procurement and supply chain officer for Flextronics International Ltd., which designs, manufactures and ships products for original equipment manufacturers.

It would be a paradigm shift for supply chain managers who would need to get comfortable with wearing headsets and interacting with visualization technologies, he said.

“Let’s be honest, it’s early,” Mr. Linton said at the MIT event. “I think the potential, though, is enormous.”

Dr. Winkenbach said augmented and virtual reality also need to gain more traction in the consumer sector before hardware and software that would allow supply chain managers to visualize data in 3-D gets advanced enough to be used inside corporations. Makers of hardware devices tend to improve the technology for commercial use when it catches on in the consumer sector, he said. For example, the iPhone excelled as a consumer product, and is now a business tool that’s frequently used in the commercial sector. “Without it catching up on the consumer side, it’s going to be hard … for it to be technologically robust and advanced enough to create value in a corporate environment,” he said.

But plans for the 500-square-foot Visual Analytics Lab are underway, and Dr. Winkenbach is currently soliciting corporations to help fund the $2 million to $3 million lab.

Dr. Winkenbach plans to work with a team of MIT researchers with experience in data science, quantitative modeling, software development, machine learning, supply chain logistics and other areas to build out the technologies in the lab.

With corporate partnerships, these researchers would take massive amounts of corporate data such as customer data and product information, and develop software applications that could turn the data into 3-D representations.

Augmented reality is already entering enterprises, although most use cases are mostly limited to the factory floor.

For example, AGCO Corp., a manufacturer of agricultural equipment, is experimenting this year with computer-generated hologram-like images to help guide workers wearing augmented reality headsets through the process of welding 30-foot booms to chemical sprayers.

About 14.4 million U.S. workers will use “smart glasses,” such as Google Glass and HoloLens, in 2025, up from 400,000 this year, according to Forrester Research Inc. Large companies will spend $3.6 billion on smart glasses in 2025, up from $6 million in 2016, according to Forrester. The global 3-D imaging market, which includes holograms, is expected to grow from $4.9 billion in 2015 to $16.6 billion by 2020, according to Markets and Markets, a research firm in India.

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