A growing number of companies in the automotive industry are embracing the use of augmented and virtual reality technology for tasks such as part picking and inventory management, as well as for training.

From enhanced design and manufacturing processes to novel staff training and apprenticeship programmes, the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in industrial applications is growing.

In the automotive logistics sector, a number of vehicle-makers and logistics service providers have been prompted to investigate the potential of technology such as glasses or goggles that can overlay a heads-up display onto a normal view of the world. Besides innovative pilot projects, some are even moving towards the establishment of AR systems in full operation. 

Many early examples have focused on warehouse management and product picking, but, as the technology improves and the range of products on the market increases, there is some evidence that the use of this technology could go much further. 

As Irma Gilbert, business development manager at Liverpool-based technology start-up Connect 4.0 explains, AR technology can be put to a large number of uses, from maintenance and training to prototyping and product or part visualisation, as well as improving productivity and safety. For automotive, the luxury segment is also using AR to enhance production, reduce cost of design and provide a better customer experience.

BMW, for example, is currently using smart glasses in a pilot project at its Munich plant. As Nela Murauer, head of the Smart Glasses Project, explains, the company is trialling glasses like those from ODG, Vuzix and Google, which are “technically used like a monitor worn on the nose” to display picking information in the worker’s field of vision, while interaction with the warehouse management system is achieved via barcode scans. 

A two-month study suggests a 22% time-saving and a 33% reduction in errors over a typical eight-hour shift when using the technology, and employees have proved to be satisfied with the user interface, says Murauer – though there have been some reports of hardware-related discomfort to the nose and temples, she admits. 

Jan Cirullies, head of logistics at the Fraunhofer Institute for Software and Systems Engineering (ISST) in Germany, says one of the main applications for AR in warehouses is to support operational processes, either as a permanent tool or a temporary aid. One example of a permanent application is pick-by-vision technology, in which AR devices are used to highlight boxes or shelf locations to pick from, or to optimise packing instructions. 

Among those deploying the technology is VW Group, which is currently running a number of AR-related initiatives across several group companies. Skoda, for example, has introduced an innovative video mapping scheme at its Mladá Boleslav facility in the Czech Republic in an effort to assist staff with material picking by providing extended information and highlighting any process errors.

Elsewhere, VW is using AR goggles to present digitalised training information about a variety of procedures that apprentices can quickly access as they are working – something the company says should help to foster self-teaching skills and enable trainees to adapt their learning behaviour to conditions at the plant.

When it comes to assessing the main benefits of using AR in logistics applications, Cirullies suggests that logistics service providers can expect to achieve a 30% improvement in total process costs, thanks to gains like shorter lead times and lower error rates.

He also believes that AR provides companies across the automotive logistics sector with potentially lifelong technological support. However, despite the undoubted upsides, Cirullies admits that the technology for what he describes as ‘full’ AR – or even ‘assisted reality’ devices featuring monocular and/or fixed positions for information shown in glasses – is “still lacking industry-ready maturity”.

“Hence, scenarios with temporary application are interesting. Even if the device is not suitable for a whole shift – perhaps because of weight-related ergonomic reasons or battery life – selected actions might be supported,” he says.

Based on his experience at UBiMAX, Lampe suggests that AR can lead to 15-35% faster processes depending on existing efficiency levels, as well as near-zero errors in picking. He also points to high employee satisfaction thanks to more ergonomic work processes via hands-free work and the removal of the need to walk to a fixed computer terminal, as well as an end to searching paper lists and a reduction of unnecessary tasks.

In his view, AR can also facilitate more flexible deployment of staff “due to better worker guidance and intuitive mobile visual information provision”. 

“Even new or temporary staff can fulfil tasks at top quality as the AR solution shows what to do and how to do it. Via remote support calls through the smart glasses, workers can also contact their manager and get help, guidance or approvals,” he adds. Woodward goes as far as to say that both AR and VR have the potential to transform the logistics environment, thanks to their ability to improve efficiency. 

“We know that vision picking has improved productivity, reduced errors and positively supported our warehouse operatives in their daily work, with an average uplift of 15% in the number of picks per hour, compared to a conventional approach,” he says.

Seems the use of AR in logistics will expand over the next five to ten years and, as we better understand how to integrate new and legacy systems, that options to develop new applications for repair, maintenance and product development will come to the fore. 

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