You’re unlikely to find any rosy-cheeked millennials scampering around Porsche’s Leipzig factory in search of Pokémon. But there’s more than a hint of the hugely successful augmented reality (AR) game in some of the cutting-edge techniques that are being used within these walls.
To illustrate this, the factory’s head of quality control Dr Andreas Schmidt, is stood in front of a sparkling white Panamera Sport Turismo wielding a tablet. The device’s camera is being used to capture a real-time image of the car, onto which the software highlights any anomalies, such as dents, bumps or excessive panel gaps.
We’re only talking fractions of a millimetre here. Porsche’s typically Teutonic approach to quality control means that its production tolerances are among the tightest in the world, but this system is capable of pinpointing errors that even a trained observer would be unable to spot.
Green areas on the screen indicate that the bodywork is within pre-set tolerances, while progressively darker colours highlight any mismatch with the intended shape.
This is the latest tool in Porsche’s end of line quality checks. Every single vehicle is laser scanned at 11 different stages as it passes down the production line. These measure some 3,000 different points on the car to check the dimensions against the CAD model.
Physical checks are also carried out, with technicians literally running their hands over the surface as the panels emerge from the forming machines. Any deviations of more than 0.1 mm are flagged up and either hand-finished on the spot or earmarked for subsequent attention.
Cars are periodically plucked off the line and sent for a more detailed scan, with a total of 15,000 points measured (including a re-run of those that were captured as it passed down the line). This generates a vast point cloud, which the software automatically checks against a stored 3D model of the car.
Lights, camera, action
Back in the inspection room, Dr Schmidt has another trick up his sleeve. At the touch of a button, a projector fires up, casting the AR software’s colour-coded plot directly onto the Panamera’s gleaming bodywork. Now there’s not even a tablet screen to separate you from the virtual world.
And that’s just the start of Porsche’s augmented reality exploits. Every two days a car is randomly pulled off the line for what’s known an LSK check. This examines the fixing and rooting of lines, tubes and cables. It checks for fundamental issues such as missing bolts or incorrect cable routings – both of which are more likely than they might sound, bearing in mind that there are over 1,000 different permutations of build spec on the Panamera alone.
In the past, this was all carried out by hand, but Porsche has now developed a prototype system, which overlays the correct positioning of parts, as well as other details such as torque measurements, using a set of Microsoft HoloLens glasses. This system gives you complete freedom to move around the car, looking at different angles. It also optically picks up the position of your hand, allowing you to select particular components with a pinching gesture, without the need to use a glove or a controller.
Visualisation techniques like this have existed in virtual reality for many years, but the truth is they often feel clunky and synthetic. Switching to augmented has revolutionised the experience, with a seamless blend of the real and the virtual worlds. It’s proper sci-fi stuff.
A full LSK check takes around four hours to complete. Porsche expects to have the new system ready for production use in the next 12 months and hopes it could halve the current inspection time, potentially saving millions of euros in the process.
The plan is to roll out this AR technology across all of the brand’s plants and potentially into the rest of the Volkswagen Audi Group. Using real-time data stored on the cloud it would also be possible for the engineers and technicians to collaborate with their colleagues in different locations. For instance, if a quality manager at the Porsche factory in Leipzig identified a potential problem with a Panamera, they could use AR to highlight it to their Bentley colleagues, who are using the same platform to build the next generation Continental GT in Crewe.
Porsche is looking into other ways of bringing quality control into the digital domain. After the AR demonstration, the door of the Panamera is swung open to reveal a strange object clamped onto the centre console. At first glance this resembles a miniature Death Star, but in fact it’s an array of 48 directional microphones arranged into a sphere roughly the size of a beach ball. This is essentially a 3D microphone, designed not only to capture sounds but also to pinpoint their location in the cabin.
These days it’s virtually unheard of to encounter squeaks or rattles on production cars. In Porsche’s case, that’s partly due to the technicians who test drive every single car before it’s shipped away to the dealers. At present this is carried out manually, potentially with a colleague sitting in the back seats to try and locate any untoward sounds.
And that’s where the ‘acoustic star’ comes in. Using this system, the engineers can record a baseline sound signature of each model using a standard test route. They can then subtract this routine background noise in real-time at any point in the subsequent test runs to highlight any untoward sounds with millimetric precision.
The rogue sounds are shown using another colour coded system. Here, the source of the sound glows red in a perfectly-rendered 3D model of the car. It’s a startlingly effective solution to a problem that can be tricky and imprecise to pin down with the human ear alone.
For now, this system remains a prototype, but Porsche hopes to have a practical version up and running by the end of the year. By that point the engineers also hope to have shrunk the acoustic star down to around the size of a tennis ball. But the most interesting thing could be how they decide to apply it.
While it may be many years before we see truly autonomous cars driving down the high street, the technology is already capable of steering a car safely around a controlled environment such as a test track. It’s entirely possible that future models could be dispatched for an automated test drive on their own, potentially even directing themselves to the workshop if further investigation is required. Who knows, they may even catch a Pokémon or two along the way.