By Glen Martin | Aug 03, 2021
Seattle, Washington (with workforce in California and internationally)
Augmented reality platform for manufacturing
Technology is hard. Yes, it makes life easier for its end users (i.e., us) but we're just the passive recipients of incredibly complex, dense systems that require ongoing maintenance and updating. And that's worrisome because the demand for accomplished technicians has long outstripped availability with no sign the situation will improve anytime soon.
The main problem is training. It takes a lot of time, money, and effort to familiarize a technician with a modern jet engine or water purification system, and the means used for instruction tend to be antiquated. Typically, training involves following step-by-step instructions displayed on a tablet, mobile phone, or even printed as hard copy. Junior or journeymen technicians follow the instructions as assiduously as possible, learning from their mistakes.
And there can be a lot of mistakes.
There is an irony here: relying on creaky, ineffective, and relatively low-tech methods to teach high-tech concepts. Better approaches are warranted. So Taqtile, a software company headquartered in Seattle with staff based in California and elsewhere, responded with Manifest. It's a teaching platform that puts augmented reality (AR) overlays on real-world objects or their digital equivalents, guiding technicians through the necessary work rather than telling them what needs to be done.
Taqtile's founders, John Tomizuka and Dirck Schou, spun off Taqtile from an earlier company where they both worked, Spring Wireless, in 2011. At Taqtile, the partners initially built applications for smartphones and a few other mobile devices including Microsoft's "mixed reality" smart glasses, HoloLens. The HoloLens technology made a deep impression on the two men, and they pivoted from focusing primarily on smartphone apps to mixed reality solutions. Taqtile was emerged as a software company, and Manifest was launched in 2017 as the company's flagship product.
"Manifest can run on either head-mounted sets or AR enabled mobile devices," says Malone. "A technician can look at the digital overlay Manifest puts up on any piece of equipment needing work and follow displayed step-by-step instructions while simultaneously viewing supplemental materials -- videos, photographs, and documents -- and communicating with a senior technician who's monitoring the progress on his own screen."
Senior level monitors, in fact, can draw instructions or corrections with digital "ink" over the equipment as the work progresses or guide the operating technician to specific equipment components through an eye-tracking function.
Manifest also allows operators to use virtual x-ray vision to "look" into a piece of equipment, see components buried deep within, and then follow instructions and graphic routing to gain access.
"And while an operator is working, they can monitor sensor data in real time -- such as heat or pressure -- on a digital heads-up display," Malone says. "The displays can issue alerts, preventing an action that could be potentially catastrophic. For example, say one of the steps directs the operator to turn a certain valve, but it should only be turned within certain pressure parameters. The display will tell the operator when everything is within safe limits. Manifest essentially allows lower-skilled people to perform complex tasks on advanced equipment effectively and safely."
If anything, that's an understatement. A U.S. Air Force study on C-5 engine component replacement workflows found that the error rate dropped from 92 percent using traditional manual-based procedures to zero percent with Manifest.
Manifest also tracks job performance, meaning how well individual operators do on specific tasks. And it allows operators to generate as well as consume content.
"A supervisor may want to carefully review all work done by his operators," says Malone. "So, he can ask them to record and attach videos of all tasks. Those videos can also be used to prove compliance. Regulators can review them to ensure everything was done properly."
Taqtile serves a broad range of clients. Some -- such as the U.S. military -- have deep security issues. Others are more concerned with convenience and flexibility. Taqtile can accommodate both, says Malone.
"We can distribute our system through the Cloud, run it from a secure on-premises server, go a step further and distribute it in disconnected mode strictly through a device with no server whatsoever, or take a hybrid approach that samples from any of these options," says Malone. "It's all up to the client."
Perhaps Manifest's most impressive feature is its power as a force multiplier.
"It allows you to incorporate the skills, experience, and knowledge of your senior technical people -- even those who were retired or semi-retired," says Malone. "They can work remotely, connecting with large numbers of operators on the job who refer to them when needed. It allows apprentice operators to work at expert or near expert levels, and it lets your true experts extend their careers at a pace that suits them."
Challenges: "Change management is a big challenge," Malone observes. "Digital transformation at the front line requires both organizational and individual change. Such change can be disruptive and difficult to accept at first, but the rewards can be extensive and fulfilling."
Opportunities: "Front-line, deskless workers have historically not benefitted from technological innovations," says Malone. “Manifest is changing this with its extensive, intuitive capabilities, bringing usable and useful tech right to the job site."
Needs: "Primary need – exposure," says Malone. "A lot of attention is paid to the hardware, the headsets. But these devices can only reach their full potential as productivity tools for front-line workers with software solutions like Manifest that solve real business problems."