Augmented reality: how the future meets the present at cement plants in Italy

Augmented reality is a method by which virtual elements can be merged with the real environment through a viewing device and special software. Imagine a pair of glasses through which you see images superimposed on your work environment, with which you can interact using simple hand gestures.

The world was first introduced to the idea on the big screen, in the movie Minority Report with Tom Cruise as precrime agent John Anderton. It was amazing to watch him unpack and rearrange holograms in empty space as a way to organise clues and solve a crime. Today, augmented reality has become a real technology, and it’s being used by the most innovative international companies.

The future of work

The potential applications are limitless. From telemedicine to distance learning, from collaborative teamwork to remote repair work at construction sites. Augmented reality applications have all the hallmarks of a revolutionary technology that will shape the future of work.

So, are we talking about the near future? Or about a small group of Silicon Valley nerds? No. The impact of this technology is already a reality: even in an industry that is (wrongly) considered to be locked into traditional methods and processes, namely construction. More precisely, we have begun using augmented reality to improve process efficiency in the production and sale of cements and concretes.

Continuity, even in a crisis

Technology is no different than anything else created by people: It is born of necessity and takes root on that basis. In the case of our colleagues at Italcementi, there was a need in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis to continue with ongoing product sampling and certification audits being conducted at the company’s plants. Continuity of the certifications had to be guaranteed – a necessity made more difficult in particular by the restrictions on movement in the “red zones”.

To ensure the that the compulsory audits and sampling could be completed, Italcementi had already made arrangements to allow remote sampling of its products. Initially, the problem was tackled using WhatsApp: Two technicians at the plant connected to the auditors via video call, which allowed them to monitor the cement sampling process (one colleague took the sample, the other filmed the process). Although this system worked, it was less than fully satisfactory.#

Microsoft HoloLens 2

The solution was found in collaboration with our IT colleagues at Italcementi. We decided to step up our technology game using the immersive mixed reality experience offered by Microsoft HoloLens 2. This innovative system of devices combining visual and audio overlays can be fully integrated into a protective helmet (PPE). Our augmented reality solution gave the auditors access to our facilities as if they were actually on site.

The auditors were able to give instructions and to examine certain areas with greater accuracy by sending voice and video instructions directly to the colleague on site using HoloLens 2. This allowed them to better verify the details required for certification. Of course, all of this was integrated into a fully documentable workflow that could be officially used for creation of the certification report.

We gained our first experience with Certiquality during the periodic renewal of ISO 9001 for the cement plant Tavernola Bergamasca (province of Bergamo). Together with the Construction Technologies Institute of Italy’s National Research Council (ITC-CNR), we carried out sample testing at Italcementi's plants as part of external monitoring. During this process, our first cement sampling took place remotely, with the auditor giving instructions and following the proceedings from the comfort of his own office.

The sampled cement was placed in sealed and coded containers. The entire process was filmed so that the Institute's technicians could verify that it matched with the video after receiving the sample. In other words, the certification process was conducted entirely remotely, without the auditors having to leave the headquarters of the certification board.

Times of crisis as windows of opportunity

It is important to stress that the audit was conducted with the utmost safety. The HoloLens 2 leaves both hands free for the operator and guarantees a perfect view of the environment in which one is moving. The system is seamlessly integrated into our internal processes, as the Microsoft vision devices are made to be fully compatible with Microsoft Teams. Heidelberg Materials uses the Microsoft 365 collaboration hub to share projects, information and daily routines.

I am particularly satisfied and proud of what we have accomplished here with our Information Technology department and our colleagues at the cement plants. Out of the crisis caused by the restrictions during the coronavirus scare, we were able to create an opportunity to not only increase our efficiency in the certification process, but also to offer our certification bodies a new and concrete operational solution.

Always looking to the future

The use of augmented reality is part of a broader project, ranging from digital document signing to remote control of concrete plants and apps for scheduling cement shipments. I am convinced that the only way to overcome challenges like the one we’ve just faced is to engage in research and development and find new solutions. Integrating an innovative tool like the HoloLens 2 into our daily production processes undoubtedly demonstrates our readiness for whatever comes our way. With our eyes fixed firmly on the future, we will keep expanding the boundaries of possibility in the present – no matter how complex and challenging the task.

Roberto Cucitore

Quality Systems & Product Manager Italcementi

Roberto Cucitore holds a degree in aeronautical engineering and has worked for more than 20 years at Italcementi, where he has been responsible for research and development, technical support and the technical-commercial development of special products, such as calcium sulfoaluminate cement. He is currently in charge of quality systems and product management in the area of Technology and Quality Management. His department’s most recent projects include the expansion of ISO 9001 certification to all of ready-mix concrete subsidiary Calcestruzzi S.p.A.’s production sites as well as CSC (Concrete Sustainability Council) certification of cement and concrete production units.