Brian Bare Builds Ships with Augmented Reality
An East Coast shipbuilder is revolutionizing the trade with a little help from augmented reality.
Shipbuilding is an art that, by some estimates, goes back 120,000 years. But augmented reality (AR) is now fundamentally changing this ancient art at Virginia-based Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS). At the helm? Brian Bare, the company’s senior AR platform developer. Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, Bare migrated to the software side because he always had an affinity for it.
“It's always been an interest and hobby,” he says. “This was just the right place, right time."
To build or maintain a ship, the standard approach is to use a two-dimensional (2D) reference design, whether on paper or tablet computer, as a guide for the necessary work. In 2011, Bare and his team introduced AR at NNS to facilitate this process, eliminating the disconnect between schematics and the real world.
Cutting Down on Time and Cost with AR Software
The United States Department of Defense contracts NNS to make nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, some of which are up to 1,100 feet in length. Working on equipment at that scale magnifies the inefficiencies of using 2D drawings as blueprints for manufacturing and maintenance. Simply put, Bare says, the 2D renderings are “hard to use, time-consuming and costly to create.”
When he joined NNS, Bare wanted to create a fix for this cumbersome problem. Most importantly, he wanted mechanics and other workers on the shop floor to have access to 3D representations of ship plans. Bare was part of a small team at NNS that found a perfect solution in AR software.
By Bare’s count, NNS now uses AR for seven functions, including work instruction, cable routing, inspection, workflow management, training and operations.
With work instruction, for example, NNS workers no longer have to look at a map to see where a cable might go. Instead, a tablet loaded with AR software provides them with an on-screen visualization of the area they’re looking at. The image shows the area with the cable and lets workers know exactly where it should go.
In another example, tablet-based AR software is used for training purposes. A trainee points the tablet at a piece of equipment to see which pieces to remove first and what the part looks like from the inside.
While there's no definitive analysis yet of how much time and money NNS has saved since implementing AR, Bare says that the software makes inspections about 90% faster, and that inspectors often discover factors that they might have missed otherwise.
Spotting the Future of Work Through AR
A graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), Bare served as a quality engineer for Northrop Grumman before joining NNS in 2011.
Bare says that while he loves his job, it’s not always easy. “Getting this technology to work in an industrial environment is challenging,” he says. “Using a technology that's being developed as you're applying it is tricky.”
“It developed organically as we started developing AR solutions,” he continues. “They were specialized and one-off solutions.”
Bare and his team created a toolkit so engineers can quickly learn and create AR applications themselves. Apps created using the toolkit take a few days to develop, as opposed to weeks without it.
“We developed the core functionality of the toolkit where features could then be quickly added in a composite way, like adding on Lego pieces to a structure. All features and fixes could then be used and extended to every project.”
A Tool with Staying Power
According to Bare, the toolkit improves constantly as his team uses the software in real industrial settings and situations. As the team builds AR apps and the need for added capabilities develops, he says, the team discovers and incorporates improvements in functionality and usability of the software, too. The toolkit has a built-in feedback capability to automate and manage feature requests and bug fixes as engineers request them.
As AR evolves, Bare expects NNS’s use of the technology to become more sophisticated. He’d like to see workers using more-convenient wearable displays instead of tablets, and he envisions logistics applications for the technology. AR, he says, could help track down lost parts, a common problem when building such huge ships. Ultimately, Bare sees AR as a mainstay for the profession.
“In the future, engineers learning to use AR software will be just as common as engineers using CAD software,” he says. “It'll be part of what they do.”