From remote work to supply chain resilience, the coronavirus pandemic has created new needs and highlighted existing challenges across the business world. Efforts to meet those needs and challenges will likely accelerate the development and adoption of three key emerging technologies: augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and 3D printing.
Each of these technologies has been incubating for many years, and each has significant funding and backing from large and influential corporations. Most importantly, all three technologies have the potential to facilitate solutions to urgent problems brought about or exacerbated by COVID-19—as well as to business inefficiencies that predate the pandemic.
AR devices provide a user with visual and/or aural information tailored to the context and space in which they work, helping them undertake tasks more efficiently and effectively. Many experts believe that AR, particularly in the form of smart glasses, could one day rival or displace smartphones as a ubiquitous computing platform. If that happens, the technology could extend the reach of digital processes and unlock new efficiencies.
In development and limited use for years, AR has long been considered to have great potential for the estimated 2.7 billion "deskless" workers worldwide whose tasks involve engagement with the physical world and who would most benefit from hands-free information solutions. For example, a pilot project involving the logistics company DHL equipped warehouse workers in the Netherlands with AR-enabled smart glasses that guided them through item-picking for order fulfillment—reducing errors and increasing efficiency by 25%. Local service center technicians for a luxury automaker also use AR smart glasses to collaborate in real time with engineers at the company's headquarters when performing complicated or unusual repairs.
Though AR still has technical challenges to overcome before widespread adoption becomes feasible—most notably the creation of lighter and better visual displays— several tech giants have all made large investments in the technology and are working to push its boundaries as a tool for remote work. With nearly 70% of U.S. workers now working from home full- or part-time, companies are seeking solutions that allow workers to remotely collaborate in ways that better approximate the office environment than those provided by current video chat applications.
For the financial services industry, it's possible to imagine future AR devices and applications that simulate the experience of a shared whiteboard or allow clients to collaborate with financial advisors in a more visual and immediate way. It also can be used to conduct person-to-person remote training in an engaging and effective manner.
While AR devices project an information overlay onto the physical world surrounding users, VR devices replace that world altogether with a more immersive and fully digital experience. Already used for video gaming, VR headsets have significant potential to enhance remote work.
We saw this in action in February, when two medical scientists—one in Australia, the other in the United States—used VR headsets and a specialized software platform to meet in a virtual room and discuss their work on the coronavirus while visualizing relevant infectious disease proteins.
Though not all companies will have an immediate need for a VR meeting room, many will likely find the technology most helpful in employee training. As social distancing and other public health measures make both business travel and classroom environments risky and impractical, firms will need safe and effective alternate approaches to learning.
More engaging and interactive than traditional computer-based training courses, VR classes promise to condense the amount of time needed for training while increasing knowledge retention among employees. In 2018, retail giant Wal-Mart began training its employees with VR headsets, claiming that using the devices improved employee confidence and retention while boosting test scores 10-15% in the areas of new technology, compliance, and "soft skills" such as empathy and customer service.
According to a report from business data firm Dun & Bradstreet, 94% of Fortune 1000 companies have experienced supply chain disruptions because of COVID-19, with 75% of those firms seeing negative impacts on their businesses. The coronavirus and its accompanying restrictions on work and mobility have highlighted two existing weaknesses in the global supply chain: a lack of elasticity in traditional manufacturing and the increased risk of disruption that comes with reliance on the worldwide production of essential parts, particularly in China. During the pandemic, supply chain disruptions have resulted in shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical equipment needed by hospitals and healthcare workers worldwide.
3D printing—the process of using digital files to make solid objects from various materials—has the potential to address those weaknesses by making manufacturing more versatile and agile, decentralizing production, and reducing the time to market for parts.
While traditional manufacturing lines excel at high-volume, low-mix production—that is, creating many identical items—3D printing shines at low-volume, high-mix production of smaller batches of dissimilar items. This allows for rapid prototyping, quicker changes to individual production lines, and the local manufacture of goods. To address PPE shortages, for example, the medical industry has used 3D printing to create a variety of tools, from nasal swabs and face shields to ventilators. A Chinese construction company printed 15 isolation wards for hospital staff in Hubei province.
The overall market for 3D printing, which has averaged a growth rate of 23.3% over the last four years, is predicted to reach $51.7 billion by 2026. Similarly, the global market for AR and VR combined is expected to reach $167.89 billion by 2026, with a 2019-2026 CAGR of 34.7%. All three technologies likely will grow faster due to the pandemic and the high demand for technologies that enable better remote work and faster manufacturing.
As these and other emerging technologies continue to accelerate throughout the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, it is important to keep a pulse on what is next for the technologies and the organizations that adopt them.