MR4B – Mixed Reality for Business in an interview at Projekt Zukunft
The Adlershof software company X-Visual Technologies coordinates the first Berlin „WIR!-Bündnis” for industrial mixed reality applications combined with artificial intelligence.
As part of the „WIR! – Wandel durch Innovation in der Region“ funding program, the use of MR and AI technologies is intended to strengthen structurally weak regions in Berlin-Brandenburg in particular in the long term.
The first phase ran from September 2020 to May 2021. Together with the alliance partners, a strategy concept was developed during the concept phase that shows project ideas for how tangible virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications for industrial SMEs, combined with AI, are to sustainably drive structural change in the region. The „WIR!-Bündnis Mixed Reality for Business“ (MR4B) was ultimately convincing and will be funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with 15 million euros over the next six years. Project manager Jenny Orantek explains how the project was transferred from the concept phase to the multi-year implementation phase in August 2021 and what innovation potential it has.
Can you very briefly outline again what the „WIR!-Bündnis MR4B“ is all about?
With the project „MR4B – Mixed-Reality-Anwendungen for Business“, the “WIR!-Bündnis” wants to make a significant contribution to the digital transformation of work through VR/AR applications in combination with AI technologies for industrial SMEs and the skilled trades in the region “Berlin and Berlin environs”.
This is intended to develop a vision for the workplace of the future and drive structural change in the metropolitan region. The vision of “MR4B” lies in the development of a regional innovation ecosystem on mixed reality applications in combination with AI technologies in the industrial environment. The aim is an interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral and regional networking of partners from solution providers and users from industry. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are to be sensitized, encouraged and enabled to use VR/AR productively and at low cost.
You qualified for the second round, the implementation phase, out of 140 sketches submitted at the beginning, along with 22 alliances throughout Germany. What were you ultimately able to convince with?
With the alliance “MR4B”, we want to actively shape the structural change in the region of Berlin and the surrounding area with AI and mixed reality applications and advance it in the long term. In this way, the way we want to work together in the future is to be sustainably changed: Activities that today still require employees to travel to their respective work locations can be offered remotely worldwide in the future thanks to MR applications brought to market maturity in the “MR4B Bündnis”. To this end, SMEs from trade and industry, solution providers, scientists, users and associations are all working together on this vision in the “WIR!- Bündnis MR4B” – and of course we want to make it available nationwide.
The “MR4B” concept was convincing in many areas. Even during the concept phase, users described their problems, especially under pandemic conditions. Initial needs and ideas for solutions were identified and discussed in more detail with the alliance partners in 24 workshops. The result was a first common understanding of the possibilities of the future technologies VR as well as AR and AI and a sense of “WE” in the alliance. Already in the first exchange, the great need for industry-related VR/AR applications became apparent, but also the different perspectives and knowledge levels within the alliance became clearer.
In order to present the “MR4B” vision, partners:inside and the project well, a website and an image film were created during the concept phase. The website and video were especially important to pick up interested parties and the alliance partners, to connect them and to give them the feeling of becoming part of an innovation core. Despite the pandemic conditions, it was possible to build up a commitment and to bind a large part of the partners to the alliance.
So mixed reality is set to become an integral part of the modern workplace – MR-based device combinations combined with AI technologies. What exactly does that look like?
I have already touched on sustainability – for example, MR applications enable the decentralized maintenance of complex systems without the need for responsible employees to be present on site. As a result, living conditions between metropolitan and rural areas can be equalized in the long term: Less commuting and business travel should lead to less traffic. Above all, support for remote work should also attract skilled workers to rural regions – in the long term, this will help secure jobs and increase innovative strength.
In order to bring these applications into widespread use quickly, it is advantageous for scientific and economic centers such as the Berlin-Brandenburg metropolitan region to develop more decentrally in the future than they have in the past. In this way, companies and employees alike can combine the economic advantages of spatial proximity, flexible work, health and ecological sustainability.
Can you elaborate on that as well?
Very much so. The economic benefits of using mixed reality are already apparent today. Virtual site inspections and commissioning of plants via VR glasses can save travel costs, for example. German industry saved up to 50 billion euros on business trips in 2020 alone, estimates the Association of German Business Travelers of 2021. And that can be expanded even further: Travel could be halved in the next few years, resulting in high CO2 savings.
Using Mixed Reality in pre-planning and iteration rounds with customers could save 10-15 percent in planning effort, according to current estimates, because errors are detected early. The costs of repairs and maintenance could be halved, as the customer’s technicians could be instructed by remote support with digital glasses, independent of time and location, and could carry out work themselves anywhere in the world.
For SMEs in particular, we see mixed reality technologies as paving the way for handling international projects. At the same time, the alliance partners expect the associated digital transformation to strengthen companies in the region. In terms of the potential volume of use in the region, mixed reality technologies will play a significant role in the future for every second employee in the planning, maintenance and operation of plants.
In the areas of industry and trade, the “MR4B Bündnis” has identified a great need for VR and AR applications in combination with AI. What does that look like in practice?
Mixed reality applications in combination with AI hold great potential for innovation, especially in the industrial environment. In the future, data glasses will be a central tool for the planning, commissioning and maintenance of industrial plants. We are convinced that in the future only a small part of these tasks will require on-site presence: Presence will decrease, because VR can support remotely, AR can accelerate processes on site and reduce risks in occupational safety.
The data streams to be expected in the future via the Internet of Things (IoT) will become manageable with the help of AI. The alliance partners combine the use of mixed reality and AI with the prospect of quickly implementable and cost-effective solutions that lead to measurable progress in the digital transformation.
What influence does this have on the spatial planning of process plants?
This is a complex and error-prone process that requires a great deal of expert knowledge. VR and AR can not only support sales engineers in communicating with customers, but also bring planners directly into the (virtual) plant and thus make problems in planning visible more quickly. The integration of an intelligent assistance system, which bundles the expert knowledge of plant engineering in the form of rules and heuristics and uses a wide variety of AI methods for this purpose, can provide additional support for planners by visually highlighting potential problem areas in MR and generating automated solution proposals.
Since demographic change is also leading to a loss of know-how in the process industry, this type of assistance system also serves to impart knowledge by clarifying the causes of problems and the reasons for proposed solutions with the help of an “explanation” function. These initial approaches are to be further developed in “MR4B” and used in small and medium-sized industrial enterprises and the skilled trades.
Can structurally weak regions be permanently strengthened in this way?
I am firmly convinced of this. Because within the “MR4B” region “Berlin and Berlin Surroundings”, companies and scientific institutions are organizing themselves as pioneers for practical mixed reality solutions in industrial use. In doing so, they are building on the region’s former pioneering role and testing new approaches, methods and technologies for industry and industry-related trades.
“MR4B” accelerates the application and translation of current research results, develops both cross-sectional technologies and marketable solutions, promotes their use in practice and contributes to increasing the competitiveness of large and small industrial companies in the Berlin region against the backdrop of structural change. By communicating successful practical examples, the region’s innovation potential becomes visible. Investors are also considering rural areas for settlement, and at the same time the population’s confidence in being able to live and work in a sustainable region is growing.
Innovative companies from the IMK cluster, which previously limited their activities to Berlin, are recognizing new opportunities and creating jobs in the rural areas surrounding Berlin as well. SMEs that act as service providers and suppliers benefit from industrial growth and create sustainable jobs in the region.
The implementation phase will be completed in 2027. What are your specific plans for the next five years, and which users are you working with?
“MR4B” has 70 alliance partners in Berlin and Brandenburg. In addition to users such as PCK Schwedt, Unison Engineering & Consultants GmbH, se.services GmbH, expert Technik SE & Co. KG, Fraunhofer IFF, the QualifizierungsCENTRUM der Wirtschaft GmbH Eisenhüttenstadt, numerous other companies and from academia, BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg, TU Berlin, HTW Berlin, TH Wildau, as well as regional and state funding institutions such as WISTA Management GmbH.
In the implementation phase, the focus is now on designing feasible mixed reality development projects for planning and maintenance from the project ideas, as well as creating structures for testing new technologies and scenarios. In addition, concepts are being developed not only to disseminate the new technologies, but also to establish them as standards. Following the total six-year funding period, the alliance is to function independently as a network structure. In addition, structures and new cooperative ventures will be created to network the players in the region across industry boundaries.
And what are your long-term goals?
In contrast to the old federal states, there are few traditional companies in the “MR4B” region in which the entrepreneurs are closely linked to the region. Due to their structure and low equity ratio, many companies are unable to master the digital transformation on their own. Through common methods and data structures, SMEs can pool their capabilities, offer new services and products, and hold their own against larger competitor:s in the market.
The pandemic has revealed weaknesses in digitalization in companies, but also the willingness to engage in new forms of collaboration. Data glasses, drone photos and laser scans allow new methods for planning and maintaining industrial plants without being on site. “MR4B” sets itself the goal of being a competence center for industrial VR/AR applications and a bridge builder in the region, as well as organizing interdisciplinary knowledge transfer.
About X-Visual Engineering Software
X-Visual Technologies has been developing and implementing sophisticated software solutions based on Microsoft© Visio© for engineering and documentation in plant construction since 2004. The aim is to improve data exchange and communication between the various departments.
The “PlantEngineer” software is designed to help engineers to create and modify intelligent flow diagrams intuitively and without CAD knowledge as early as the plant design stage. As the central document for plant design, the flow diagram provides relevant information for the entire life cycle of the plant – from the first draft proposals to commissioning. The connection to an ERP system enables cross-system working and integrates the processes of procurement and logistics up to commissioning. Users include planners, installers and operators of process plants in the pharmaceutical, chemical, life science and environmental technology industries.
X-Visual Technologies is a Microsoft Visio partner. Active memberships in the “DEXPI-Initiative” (Data Exchange for the Process Industry), in the “Xinnovations e. V.”, the nationwide competence network for net-based information technologies as well as in the “ENPRO 2.0-Initiative im Projekt ORCA” (Efficient Orchestration of Modular Plants) as well as the cooperation in the innovation platform “KEEN – Artificial Intelligence Incubator Laboratories” in the process industry enable the use of synergies and strengthen a user:inside oriented software development.
X-Visual has been internationally active for 18 years and has built up expertise in the areas of engineering software, mixed reality, data integration and digitalization of plant construction projects through projects with renowned industrial companies and sees itself as a link between business and science.