Leonard A. Gentine founded Sargento Foods in 1953 with the belief that success was contingent upon working with good people and treating them the way you would like to be treated. His strong belief in the importance of culture remains today in the 20 fundamental principles that guide our interactions. Innovation is one of these principles.

While the history of Sargento has many familiar product and packaging innovations in the dairy case, the company’s principles apply to all aspects of our business. So, in 2017 we kicked off our emerging technology function to purposefully put the innovation principle to practice in the IT department. Our emerging technology purpose is to inspire new and different thinking around technology to rapidly innovate. We do this with a two-fold mission:

  1. Educate the Sargento family on technology trends in a safe, inviting way
  2. Conduct proof of concepts (POCs) and proof of values (POVs) to understand the impact technology trends may have on our business

Technology Trend: Immersive Experiences and Augmented Reality

To start talking about immersive experiences, we needed to start with terminology. But, unfortunately, this trend is riddled with abbreviations and terms (VR/AR/MR), and the use cases for a business can span all three versions of “x-reality.” So, a show-and-tell event with external vendors demonstrating all three technologies helped make this trend tangible. As a result of this learning experience, in an hour we had people across departments providing use cases.

While virtual reality (VR) has its place, we found immersive experiences in a manufacturing setting were more about augmenting the physical world with context-relevant digital data.

Testing POC opens doors for opportunity expansion

A July 2021 AOTMP® Insights article (contributed by Chris Campbell, enterprise program manager, CAN-AM) covered how augmented reality (AR) is changing the world, and the use cases we identified during our show-and-tell event supported many of them. For our first POC, we identified one use case to focus on with our manufacturing partners. However, a second use case, a more near-term opportunity, presented itself during the POC.

AR for remote assist applied to equipment maintenance

One of my favorite quotes attributed to Isaac Asimov is, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny.’” When we kicked off our AR POC this year, there was nothing in the hypothesis for remote support; however, we identified this as an opportunity coming out of the experiment.

Remember this exercise as a kid? You write down how to build a paper airplane and then hand those written steps to someone else for them to follow. You learn quickly that there are many ways to build a paper airplane and that written instructions are hard to write. Imagine instead you are wearing AR glasses and the other person is across the globe instructing you with audio and visual clues that show up right in front of the physical piece of paper. Our “Eureka” was this scenario for our maintenance technicians.

Even before the pandemic made travel difficult, support for equipment in our manufacturing facilities often required original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) from across the globe. As the July article noted, a maintenance tech could take a picture or video of a situation and send it to the OEM, but things can get lost in those mediums. With AR glasses and audio, a real-time call with someone across the globe saves time and money while performing on-the-job (OTJ) training. While an unexpected side effect from our POC, this use case is one we’ve determined is closer to being implemented than our original use case. A simple smartphone or tablet, already in use on the floor, can be leveraged to start.

AR for training beneficial; path to incorporate still in study stage

Our original use case was related to using AR to improve the onboarding and training of our workers. An adequately supported frontline worker can perform many tasks efficiently, safely, and with quality. Today, frontline workers are equipped in multiple ways: paper and electronic work instructions, classroom training, and tribal knowledge, but when asked about training, other mediums like AR and a less than five-minute video guide were of interest.

We set out with the following success criteria:

  • Make it easier to capture tribal knowledge for training new workers
  • Reduce the 1:1 training time requirement
  • Increase skill labor training of process techs and team leaders

We focused on four training situations related to preventive maintenance and troubleshooting line performance issues.

When we do these POCs, it is not our focus to pick the perfect robust solution; instead, we are looking for a partner in quick experimentation and learning. We found several potential vendors and, with good end-user engagement, selected one.

While we found it easy to get the content into the AR system and edit the material for OTJ-assisted training, we have an outstanding question about integrating these systems with existing training material. Ideally, a system that allows write-once and leverage across multiple training formats would improve the maintainability. That said, our POC results showed continued support for using AR as a training tool, and it is a feasible solution for improved OTJ.

Key POC takeaways from hands-on experimentation with AR

This year, we learned a lot with a quick POC on how ready we and the technology are for augmented reality use cases in manufacturing. A few of those takeaways are:

  1. There is curiosity in using these technologies with our workers; leveraging these individuals as change agents is key in developing the solutions.
  2. Eyesight and other physical conditions of individuals can impact the experience. As a result, AR headsets may not work for all.
  3. Environmental limitations are real. Network access and noisy locations may impact user satisfaction.
  4. The technology is still nascent, with options out there. We are still working on the right mix of best of breed for a specific need versus generic solutions for easier supportability but less fit for purpose.

 

Photo of Erin Allen

Erin Allen

Erin Allen is Director of IT Strategy & Architecture at Sargento. She has 15+ years of digital transformation leadership experience designing business technology architecture and driving solutions across diverse industries and global brands with impacts delivered across both the B2B and B2C spaces. Erin is an active industry leader who serves on multiple boards, including the UW-Extension IT Management Program.

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