Volkswagen brings augmented reality to life along the factory line

In just the past few years, augmented reality has gone from a science-fiction idea to apps that lets you see how clothes fit, where to put your new home appliance or even to test how well you could have piloted the Apollo lunar lander. Now Volkswagen has put augmented reality to work in its U.S. factory.

As the Chattanooga factory ramps up production of the new Atlas Cross Sport, and lays groundwork for assembling the next generation of Volkswagen electric vehicles planned to begin in 2022, engineers have a new tool using augmented reality goggles to design production lines and help spot potential issues.

The software tool was developed over just six weeks by the Volkswagen Virtual Engineering Lab California, based on requests and feedback from technicians in Tennessee. The system helps designers see not just individual parts, but how existing and future equipment could interact in a real environment.

While virtual planning and software design for vehicles and factory machinery has been a standard for years, the AR factory goggles gives engineers the ability to see how the pieces will fit together in the real world.

Different colors indicate the virtual position of new machinery along the Chattanooga production line

“This helps us to make decisions quicker, and spot potential issues sooner,” said Steffan Nunn, digital factory specialist at Volkswagen Chattanooga. “As we integrate new models into the existing factory, we need to make sure our virtual design data matches the reality in the plant.”

The original concept for the system was sketched out in two weeks by Volkswagen’s Advanced Technologies group. By building the system in-house, Volkswagen had more room to maneuver and improve quickly while working with sensitive data, says Frantisek Zapletal, who leads the Virtual Engineering Lab for Volkswagen Group of America.

“If we had done this with external partners, it wouldn’t have been as flexible or as fast,” Zapletal said. “It’s really a communications platform, and people can use it to share ideas quickly. Once you see an idea in AR, you really believe it.”

Some early examples have shown that the system was able to identify pinch points between machinery and parts that weren’t previously visible. Zapletal says the tool could have uses from office layouts to vehicle accessories design, across Volkswagen’s North American Region or beyond.

Nunn says the next step in Chattanooga will be using the augmented reality tools to help improve ergonomics and maintenance.

“With so many people generating input into these processes, communication is really important,” he says. “Anything we can do to help speed up decision making means we can get more efficient and focus on assembling high-quality vehicles for our customers.”