The Immersive Worlds of AR & VR in the Turbomachinery Industry

Published on: 
Turbomachinery Magazine, November/December 2023, Volume 64, Issue 7

Augmented and virtual realities increase safety, enable remote support, enhance operator training, and support the design process.

The turbomachinery industry is using augmented, virtual, and mixed realities to create immersive, immediate, and interactive environments that are transforming not only a user’s view of the real world, but the industry’s approach to safety, productivity, design and manufacturing, repairs and maintenance, employee training, customer presentations, and more.

With virtual reality (VR), the user is immersed in a digital environment while augmented reality (AR) overlays virtual objects on top of a real-world environment. Mixed reality (XR) is an extension of AR that blends physical and digital worlds.

Gone are the days when VR and AR were questioned for their functionality and credibility—these are reliable and imaginative tools on the shop floor, in the training room, in the field, and beyond. As Patrick M. Kessler, Global Communications and Digital Marketing Manager at Atlas Copco Gas and Process, pointed out, these immersive technologies are no longer seen as something futuristic or intimidating. “We have found solid business cases for using 3D technologies, where previously it was often seen as pure entertainment,” he said.

Ellie Smith, Product Manager of Augmented Reality at Howden, a Chart Industries Company, echoed Kessler's view: “We are now fully convinced that AR has a place in the way we work and are working hard to embed it as part of our everyday processes. We started our journey with AR five years ago running pilot projects, working on specific standalone challenges to understand how AR tools can work for our business and what problems they can solve for us,” she said. “We’re now at a stage where we’re confident in the technology. We’re beginning to scale up our usage, embed-ding it into our everyday processes for internal use and offering our AR services to more of our customers.”

Remote collaboration is the most popular AR application, according to Inderpreet Shoker, Director of Research at ARC Advisory Group.“ VR is touted as the next-gen solution for taking operator training to the next level. It can create effective training programs with large field of view and complete immersion to help train new workers quickly and efficiently.” She said that research supports the use of AR, indicating that hands-on training programs are more effective compared to presentations and books.

New digital tools and technologies in this space are breaking into the market and further enhancing features, software, graphics, and speed. Meta offers three versions of its VR headset, Meta Quest, with varying forms of graphics, performance, and ergonomics. Microsoft’s XR headset, HoloLens, comes in four offerings, including an industrial edition that is “designed and tested to support regulated environments such as hazardous locations.” According to Microsoft, in manufacturing, HoloLens 2 reduces downtime, increases efficiency by 90%, reduces travel time by 40%, and boosts employee learning of complex tasks.

“The emergence of Meta Quest in VR and Microsoft HoloLens 2 in XR has been historic,” said Kodai Tsushima, xR Application Development Section, Strategic Technologies Research Department at Ebara Corp., parent company of Elliott Group.

“Meta Quest has succeeded in promoting the widespread use of VR with its concept of affordability and PC-free experience. HoloLens 2 projects information into space hands-free and enables scanning of spatial shapes, meeting almost all the requirements of XR in the manufacturing industry. Moreover, with the improvement in PC graphics processing speed, simulations of previously impossible physical phenomena are now possible, and the technology continues to break barriers.”

As Shoker pointed out, AR has opened the door to more dynamic remote collaboration via smart glasses, phones, tablets, etc., “allowing users to connect with remote experts through video calls and receive guidance in real-time using diagrams, markers, instructions, and annotations in the user’s live field of view,” she said. “Many advanced applications also allow users to view critical tasks as well as asset information within their field of view. With digitally created content—including digital twins of assets and equipment—overlaid on a live video stream, AR can provide virtual hands-on assistance.”

Howden uses AR to enhance worker health and safety by helping onsite engineers maintain an awareness of their surroundings. “We can take our AR experiences out of the classroom and into the working environment,” Smith said. “This gives the information we’re showing a contextual grounding—we’re not just looking at data or work instructions in isolation; we’re able to show how that fits into the real working environment.”


The industry is not limiting its use of these technologies, as they are present in the training room, on the shop floor, in the field, and beyond.

For example, Siemens Energy’s collaboration with Microsoft and other partners to create an ecosystem of applications and services that can be integrated into HoloLens 2—”an untethered, self-contained holographic headset that offers the option to include XR applications and information in the physical environment while working heads-up and hands-free,” said Marion Mirold, Head of XR Center of Competence at Siemens Energy. This integration provides XR use cases in-shop and in the field among all project phases.

Another example is the role of AR and VR as a way to enhance employee training and development. “At Atlas Copco Gas and Process, we harness the power of AR/VR, immersing our employees in virtual scenarios that closely resemble real-life situations,” Kessler said. “This hands-on training helps improve employee skills. For example, it is possible to use our virtual models to perform task-site simulations. This allows for potential errors or shortcomings in the field to be identified and rectified immediately.”

The use of virtual and augmented environments also creates another layer of detection in the manufacturing process, as well as increases customer response times, optimizes maintenance and troubleshooting, and guides workers/engineers step-by-step.

Even if the 3D design theory is correct, mistakes can still be overlooked, “during reviews, discovery of problems not seen in the design theory, and difficulties in assembly that can lead to manufacturing problems,” explained Tsushima. “By using VR, it is possible to review designs in life-size (or any desired scale) without the need for prototyping. This enables verification from various angles and helps catch manufacturing problems.”

Shoker said that many OEMs provide AR collaboration tools to end users as a part of their maintenance services. “In many cases, using these tools, remote workers can fix issues themselves with remote guidance from an SME,” she said. These tools can speed up troubleshooting in the field and address issues more efficiently.

The team at Howden uses AR to visualize the next step in an assembly process—”overlaying the locations of piping and instrumentation in a more intuitive way than traditional 2D diagrams,” Smith said. Further, the company’s field service engineers can follow AR work instructions to guide them through each step of a process.

“Our AR-enabled remote support tool, Howden Virtual Expert, supports customers remotely by seeing what they see to help us respond faster to their needs,” Smith said. “AR remote assistance allows us to provide advice to our engineers in the field to achieve a first-time fix and reduce travel costs associated with a site visit by only sending one engineer with the expertise of many provided virtually. AR Work Instructions enables training regardless of location, reduces training time and costs, and enables better reporting and accountability as we capture data about servicing.”

Kessler said that Atlas Copco Gas and Process uses AR/VR similarly, as its service personnel can use these tools to access real-time equipment data and visual instructions during their tasks.

“This instant access to information makes it easier to optimize maintenance and commissioning processes while troubleshooting problems more efficiently,” he explained. “Ultimately, this helps reduce downtime and operating costs.”


AR also benefits customers by allowing companies to present their products and services using 3D models, animations, and more to bring their portfolio to life—and clients don’t even have to leave the office. “Today, we can bring our customers on tours of our different products in remote, inaccessible environments from the comfort of their own offices,” Smith said. “They can engage with the products and get information the way they prefer, by interacting with the content intuitively.”

Further, these technologies offer a perspective to customers that wasn’t easily accessible before. “With large and complex rotating equipment such as ours, it is challenging to look ‘under the hood’ of the actual turbomachinery, especially when it is running,” Kessler pointed out.

“These 3D technologies enable the customer to take a deep dive into our solutions to understand and experience turbomachinery in a realistic, application-type setting. Our 3D equipment is typically placed inside a photorealistic version of a plant, making the experience even more immersive and relatable for our customer.”


Of course, every technology comes with limitations; however, the confines of these virtual and augmented realities may surprise you. Let’s start with the basics.

Often clients and employees have little to no experience with VR and AR, so it may take an adjustment period. “Generally, there needs to be a certain comfort level and willingness on the user’s end to literally take that leap and immerse themselves in 3D environments,” Kessler said.

In Howden’s case, it mostly uses mobile devices and tablets for its AR because they are familiar technologies, as there is a learning curve with headsets—they require end users to interact with the content in ways that are different from a traditional mouse and keyboard. For example, voice commands—which, even with noise canceling and directional mics, aren’t always practical in noisy environments—and hand gestures.

“Improved hand tracking has helped a lot in the latest HoloLens, but it can still feel quite unnatural,” Smith said. “Personally, I’d like to see a move toward bi-manual gestures, i.e., locking buttons and menus to locations on the hand or arm, and using the other hand to ‘click’—HoloLens does this for its start button, and it feels easier and more intuitive than grappling with virtual buttons floating in space because it gives us that tactile feedback we are used to.”

Plus, headsets are for situational use and cannot be worn all day, but even though they are “more capable compared to smartphones and tablets and can be operated with voice commands or head or hand gestures,” as Shoker pointed out, “most in today’s workforce are not familiar with these newer ways to input data and commands, so it may take more time for the workforce to get used to this technology.”

Beyond the comfort and familiarity with these environments, there are situations in which a physical presence is required when using VR and XR, which can be a barrier in some cases. Additionally, Smith pointed out other basic challenges such as a solid internet connection when working offshore, in a mine, or in very remote areas and a need for more devices that are ruggedized and/or rated for use in hazardous areas.

Further, some limitations depend on the end devices, as Tsushima pointed out, such as head-mounted displays and smart glasses rather than hardware or PCs. “For example, while 3D graphics representation and physics simulation have undergone significant changes in the past five years, HoloLens2 cannot process all of them,” Tsushima said.

In terms of functionality, AR headsets need to pack a lot into one lightweight package: display equipment, high-end graphics processing, batteries, etc. “With current technology, meeting these size and weight constraints means that battery life is limited, and your head warms after wearing a headset for a while, especially loading in large high complexity models,” Smith said. “So, there’s still a need for smaller, lighter-weight components to meet the kind of performance we need.”

At one point, cost was a major barrier, but today it’s not as much of a setback. Over the past several years the cost of hardware, including headsets, has decreased significantly, and, oftentimes, the initial upfront costs are quickly offset by the rate of return.

“The hardware, development, and service costs are very low compared to the savings that can be achieved,” Mirold said. “In many cases, a single successful use of the device can pay off the investment. And little training is required to use the device and the applications.”

Kessler pointed out that the cost of customizing your 3D experience—i.e., the cost of creating and developing a fully immersive digital universe tailored to your specific environment with your tools and products—
is still a sizeable investment. “At the same time, it has provided an even greater return.” He explained that its digital environment was created in a game engine, meaning it can pull multiple outputs ranging from AR to VR, and even singular 3D visualizations.

Beyond hardware, another cost consideration is software. “For us, because of the size of our company, the scale we operate at, and because we want to decentralize the creation of AR experiences to let product and process experts drive content—rather than AR or software experts—it made sense to invest in enterprise-level AR software, mostly SaaS-based and ‘click-and-drag’ style development interfaces,” Smith said. “It comes with some pretty significant costs, but the payoff is it allows us to develop and deploy solutions quickly, and with more input from our business experts because it’s easier for more people to get involved. Software cost doesn’t have to be a barrier to AR, especially for businesses just dipping their toe in the water with a quick proof of concept, but as you scale up, those enterprise features tend to become more important.”

All that said, Kessler doesn’t see any limitations. In fact, a limitless environment is the point of 3D technologies: “removing all limitations in the real world and immersing yourself in another one,” he said.

Mirold agreed: “Every day new use cases are being identified in the different branches of the organization. When the cybersecurity aspects are covered and the data transfer is ensured, even in tough conditions and at very remote locations, the use cases are nearly unlimited.”


As cliché as it may sound, the sky is the limit with these technologies. Currently, the industry continues to invest in AR/VR and look for new ways to integrate it into its economies, and that trend
will continue.

“There will be new processes and applications in plants, and they will require new and, in many cases, more complex equipment technologies,” Kessler said. “Therefore, 3D technologies will not only have significant potential in these fields, but they can also be an essential tool and driver, from internal training to external marketing and other fields.”

Tsushima believes the use of AR and VR will become indispensable. “For example, in design, VR will be used for design reviews, allowing manufacturing to take place without prototyping. In assembly, logistics, and maintenance, AR and XR will be used to support workers. Furthermore, while human judgment is currently relied upon, in the not-so-distant future AI will also be utilized in these areas.”

Again, these tools enable high-quality training with 3D visualizations and interactive training sessions that enhance worker learning in a way that wasn’t possible before. It’s already taken training to the next level, and that can translate into other areas of the workplace. Additionally, AR can support the industry as it struggles to replenish skilled workforces and as folks retire or leave the industry.

“With remote augmented communication and augmented operations, AR can help the industry better address the impending skills gap challenge by capturing and leveraging SMEs using AR technology,” Shoker said. “AR work instructions are a really simple way to capture expert knowledge,” Smith said. “Which may or may not exist in written documentation, and pass it on to our newer, less experienced team members to embed the knowledge in the organization rather than in individuals.”

The future of VR/AR/XR is vast. “We’re now past the point of AR being some new-fangled gimmick,” Smith said. “We’ve seen the benefits proven over again. The industry is ready, the underlying tech platforms are ready, and I think we’re going to see an acceleration in AR and VR being adopted across the whole supply chain.” 