Visual Work Instructions: What are the best devices and user interfaces?

Mila Budeva
Mila Budeva
Sep 13, 2018

In our article dedicated to The Benefits of Visual Work Instructions, we looked at how a digital, multi-media upgrade of Standard Operating Procedures can have a far-reaching positive impact on the shop floor – from improved safety and quality, to reduced training costs.


Next, let’s explore more closely some of the different devices and user interfaces (UIs) that manufacturers can use to implement Visual Work Instructions on the shop floor and what some of their pros and cons are. This is by no means an exhaustive list so please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments and we can expand it together!



What are the pros of mobile devices on the shop floor?

  • • High resolution screens
  • • Lightweight and portable
  • • Capability to streamline training, execution and analytics all in one place


Imagine that you are cooking a complex dish from scratch for the first time and that you need to run between the smoking hobs in the kitchen and the desktop computer in the living room to check what the next step of the recipe is. Before you know it, you’ll overcook the veg, burn the sauce and the whole meal will go to waste.


That’s what day-to-day work is often like for many operators on the shop floor who can only access work instructions by paper or on the workstation desktop computer. As a result, workers need to make a minor stop every time they need to consult the instructions, disrupting their work and increasing the likelihood of manual errors.


Compare that to using a tablet that can be placed on the production line and used to play a step-by-step video as the operator is executing the task.


With high-resolutions screens, mobile devices - whether tablets or smart phones - are great for displaying photo and video work instructions while their compact size makes them easy to place at a production line or carry about the plant.


This way, the tablet at the packing line can repeatedly play a video on how to correctly pack the product, making the instructions visible for everyone on the line with multi-lingual subtitles if required to cater for a multi-cultural and lingual workforce.


In another instance, an operator can take a tablet to the piece of equipment that she has been tasked to clean or check and search for the relevant instructions before she undertakes the task.


Thanks to modern mobile, social and collaborative digital capabilities, manufacturers can use tablets to go beyond simply displaying visual work instructions and onto tracking competencies, measuring process adherence and enabling problem-solving and knowledge sharing all in one place. A mobile collaboration and workflow platform can enable manufacturers to streamline training, execution and analysis of operations all in one place.


For example, an operator starts the day by watching the relevant video work instructions on the production line tablet. She can then submit her digital signature, so management has evidence that the required in-line training has been completed.


While performing the task, the operator might encounter an issue with the packaging seal. She can then access the digital, searchable system of procedural guidance and best practices and discover the recommended fix - or one point lesson - submitted by other experienced operators who have encountered the same issue. If that fails, she can capture an image or video of the issue and share in real-time with the maintenance team, helping to escalate and resolve the issue faster.



What are the cons of having mobile devices on the shop floor?


  • • Cost of devices.

  • • Battery life.

  • • Glass screens and fragility.


The cost, battery life and fragility of devices are some of the most common concerns expressed among manufacturers. However, with the proliferation of mobile solutions, prices continuously lower while functionalities grow, and a ruggedised protective case doesn’t add much more to the price.


What is more, the cost savings and productivity gains that the technology would generate within the first days of its implementation offer a significant ROI – reduced onboarding time, faster problem solving, higher process adherence result in immediate cost and productivity gains and have a beneficial long-term impact on quality and compliance.



If you can’t carry it, wear it!

The variety of available mobile and wearable devices makes it easier than ever to create and share visual work instructions that are compatible with the specifics of the tasks and production environment. On shop floors where there is intensive manual intervention and material handling, or at the production site of a large, complex product, a hand-held device might be disruptive of the work process and cause additional minor stops.



How can you use smart glasses on the shop floor?

Smart glasses that display information on top of the existing environment (augmented reality or AR) or a new model of the environment (virtual reality or VR) have been gaining popularity on the shop floor. VR enables improved collaboration between designers and manufacturers and helps to better integrate the design and manufacturing process.


AR provides workers with hands-free access to instructions and data, and helps to ensure that production, maintenance and repairs are completed at greater speed and to the required standard.



What are the benefits of smart glasses and AR on the shop floor?


  • • Hands-free access to visual work instructions in a glance.

  • • Visualise technical drawings and make millimetre-accurate measurements.

  • • More efficient and engaging training and on-boarding.


Smart glasses and AR can help to provide the necessary instructions at a glance, convert measurements, visualise complex technical drawings and check the execution of operations against them. This has contributed to head-mounted devices’ growing popularity in the aerospace and automotive industries where every product requires a complex set of assembly instructions and millimetre-precise measurements.



Companies such as Airbus, GE, Volvo, Thyssenkrupp have been experimenting with the implementation of smart glasses on the shop floor. Ian Wright's article on how Airbus Uses Smart Glasses to Improve Manufacturing Efficiency offers insight into the implementation and benefits of the technology on the shop floor. The piece quotes Cédric Gardon, Airbus’ industrialisation technical manager for flight test installation, sharing how:


“The operation used to require three people and three days; now it requires one single operator and six hours.”


In another instance, a 2017 Harvard Business Review study examined the impact smart glasses and AR have on performance and productivity. The study is illustrated by Upskill's time-lapse comparison of a GE technician performing a task with the traditional instruction manuals and executing the same task with line-of-sight instructions on smart glasses. The study found that the device improved the worker’s performance by 34 percent on first use.



Smart glasses and AR can also be used for the more efficient and engaging onboarding of operators, helping to significantly decrease training time and costs– essential in a fast-paced, high-churn industry. With the relevant instructions, broken down in easy to digest visual chunks, operators can effortlessly navigate between different equipment and tasks. With facial recognition incorporated into the technology, plant managers can ensure that workers have completed the required training.



What are the cons of smart glasses?


  • • Limiting workers' vision and distracting from potential dangers.

  • • No industry-wide guidelines on the technology's safe use.

The main concern when it comes to smart glasses and AR is worker safety. Are the head-mounted devices and the visuals they run creating a distraction and depriving operators of their full sight capacity, posing serious health and safety risks?


With the technology still being relatively new, manufacturers such as P&G, Rolls-Royce, Dow Chemical, Intel, Stanley Black & Decker and Johnson & Johnson are coming together to create and adopt industry-wide guidelines that would ensure the most safe and efficient implementation of smart glasses, AR and VR inside the factory.



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