By Michael Pearson
Simply adopting virtual reality technologies is not enough for manufacturing-sector managers looking to bring more efficiency and productivity to the plant floor, according to a new study by the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Instead, companies hoping to get the most out of such new technologies must spend more time considering organizational factors, technological design, and the impact of such innovations on employees, said Alyssa Rumsey, a Digital Media doctoral student in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication and the study’s primary investigator.
“As these consumer-grade technologies are being implemented in industrial settings, we find a need to look more closely at the organizations and the design of technology to really facilitate putting people first,” said Rumsey, who co-authored the paper with Christopher Le Dantec, associate professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication.
Their paper is part of the 2020 ACM Proceedings on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) and is the result of a study of the implementation of a VR system at a large U.S.-based aviation manufacturer. Rumsey collected more than 220 hours of data over six months, including interviews, screen recordings of VR tool use and surveys.
For many managers, Rumsey said, the point of VR is to deliver enhanced operational efficiencies. But, according to the study, that emphasis on improving workplace efficiency may be missing the point.
For instance, one participant in the study told Rumsey and Le Dantec about how differently they were able to visualize the differences in parts when seeing them in 3D and at scale. The participant said that VR “opens up your ideas about different issues or risks with the design that you may not have thought of before.”
But those benefits were often undervalued by managers because of the difficulty of quantifying them, according to the researchers.
“The narrow definition of success — time and cost savings — also precluded management from addressing larger organization hurdles necessary to garner executive level support crucial for tech adoption in a hierarchical organization,” Rumsey and Le Dantec wrote.
While VR brings new opportunities, it can also expose new divisions and organizational issues, Rumsey and Le Dantec found.
“When you introduce VR, people begin to think about how their role changes and who’s going to own the VR and who’s going to be responsible for training. And that really shapes and can either expand or contract the role and responsibilities of certain groups within an organization,” she said.
As a consequence, Rumsey and Le Dantec argue such technologies can empower employees, but can also create unintended systemic issues if good standards aren’t in place.
“While VR has the potential to expand skills for certain categories of workers it can constrict others,” Rumsey and Le Dantec wrote. “We have to consider that mechanics and technicians would have no choice but to adapt to VR. As training content transitions to the virtual environment[,] access to traditional materials may be lost [—] excluding a portion of the workforce not able to adapt.”
As the engineers and managers in the study thought through the use cases for VR technology, training was often cited as a game-changer. Teaching mechanics can be costly and is limited by the number of trainers available to travel to conduct such work. VR systems could help by making training more accessible and available.
But such a training system would not only increase remote work, but also require backend changes to training content leading to significant differences in the trainer-trainee relationship, Rumsey and Le Dantec found.
“Now you become more of a facilitator instead of being a guy up there trying to push information to them,” one participant in the study said.
For many companies, the interest in VR technologies has to do with remaining competitive and relevant moving toward “the vision of a fully automated future,” Rumsey and Le Dantec write. The real value, they argue, is in developing tools that increase the emphasis on capturing and sharing tacit knowledge situated within the context of organizational processes and procedures.
“We have decades of research that has looked at the impact of new technologies in knowledge work and how important the organizational context is to the successful adoption and design of those technologies,” Le Dantec said. As we begin to look at how new tools move from the office to the manufacturing floor, we need to bring the same focus to bear on these new situations of computing work so that systems effectively support workers in both task-based ways as well as organizationally-situated ways.”
Rumsey said it is important to think more broadly about implementing the technologies.
“It’s not just about those employees or those workers, but it’s also about decision-making processes and the design of future technologies,” Rumsey said. “We have to think about designing and implementing technologies in a way that consider all of these factors. That’s a lot to ask, but there is a potentially huge payoff there.”