Kelly McSweeney

Apr 27th 2023

How Extended Reality Technology Is Transforming Manufacturing


Immersive technology known as extended reality (XR) is driving benefits in the design and manufacturing industry. XR solutions encompass virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology, but how could the manufacturing sector utilize extended reality practically?

Here are some of the most realistic ways XR is being used today to transform the industry.

Simplifying Design, Testing and Development

The earlier engineers can catch an issue with a design, the better. Traditionally, engineers review computer-aided design models on their computer screens and then build physical prototypes for design iteration. Now, they can use a Highly Immersive Virtual Environment (HIVE) to test and develop their designs.

Azad Kupelian, systems engineering manager and chair of a Northrop Grumman committee called the XR Community of Practice, explains why this matters: “XR allows us to make those design discoveries earlier and make the changes while everything is still a digital model before anything physical is built.”

The main purpose of HIVE is to study human factors, such as ergonomics and safety. A design can appear perfect on paper (or more likely, in digital form), but the true test comes when humans interact with it. HIVE uses mixed reality — a combination of the physical world and a digital model (e.g., of a spacecraft, rocket engine, satellite, etc.) — to identify design issues before physical prototyping.

It uses a combination of 3D models, which are updated continuously throughout the design cycle, along with Hollywood-style motion capture technology (i.e., computer-generated imagery) to allow people to interact with digital twins of the designs.

“We can put a technician inside of a spacecraft,” says Remy Verdeille, a Northrop Grumman test engineer working on a classified spacecraft nicknamed Sagittarius. “It allows us to get into the virtual world with our spacecraft and then step through some of the operations we’re planning to perform in the future.”

Streamlining the Supply Chain

XR can help connect the teams responsible for components and subsystems, too. As Kupelian says, “It allows the downstream teams to simulate and discover problems in time to influence the design and the upstream teams and give them feedback.”

Traditionally, engineers have to wait for suppliers to deliver subsystems before they can do the testing and integration. Then, if they discover any issues, they have to disassemble everything and start over. But with XR, they can work out any flaws while the design is still in progress, which can help them make decisions without wasting time or physical resources.

The same idea applies to internal teams. Typically, the various teams — from systems engineers and design engineers to manufacturing engineers and beyond — work separately. Doing so can create challenges because design engineers are focused on the program’s requirements, such as weight, size and heat dispersion, while the manufacturing team has to figure out how to assemble it. With XR, any gaps between manufacturing and design can be worked out in a simulation far in advance of the actual assembly of the product.

Accelerating Assembly and Integration

Engineering Manager Oscar Castillo believes the key to digital transformation is creating better work instructions. He explains that, while consumer assembly instructions (for items like IKEA furniture and LEGO sets) use visual aids to explain how to put things together, manufacturing instructions are different. Not only is the end product much more complex, but the designs are also more dynamic and can change at the last minute. As such, instructions are typically just a block of text.

“We can use a digital thread to start and then augmented reality for visual aids,” Castillo says. “Then, when changes are made in the design, it’s updated automatically — and your instructions are updated, as well. That way, you get the best of both worlds: You get the assurance that you’re working with the most up-to-date information, but you’re also getting the right visual aids to do your work correctly and efficiently.”

Extended reality can also help with the integration and test side of manufacturing by enabling engineers to work remotely alongside technicians in hard-to-reach places. The team that built the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb), for example, used augmented reality headsets.

“We had to do operations inside the middle of Webb, where we could only fit one person at a time,” says Verdeille. He adds, “A lot of our processes involve having someone witness what the technician is doing and verify that he’s done it correctly before moving forward.”

The technician dropped into the center of the nearly 70-foot telescope while wearing an AR headset with a camera and voice capability. It was as if the design engineer and quality assurance person were with the technician throughout the entire procedure to verify the work.

Reimagining Manufacturing

How could the manufacturing sector utilize extended reality? There are endless ways. Varying degrees of immersion can achieve different goals; whenever a physical product is involved, XR can help. Extended reality also supports a larger industry initiative: digital transformation.

“Company-wide, we’re trying to do everything digitally with a single model of the system,” says Kupelian. This just goes to show the impact ER is already having — and will continue to have — on manufacturing as a whole.

Are you interested in all things related to virtual and augmented reality? We are, too. Learn more about life at Northrop Grumman, and check out our career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery in science, technology and engineering.