Global uncertainties, growing competition, rising energy prices, and the desire for sustainable operations as drivers of industry transformations. Yet one certainty is that the days of the metaverse are upon us. Yet many industry observers either envision separate, isolated corporate metaverses or one overarching computing environment. One of these relates to the industrial metaverse – and this will be realised once a number of challenges are understood.
Finnish technology centre for applied research VTT – whose mission is advancing the utilisation and commercialisation of research and technology in commerce and society – believes that the industry must become more networked, automation must be further increased, and the outcome and quality of work must be optimised by means of smart technology.
Three areas stand out for the company. First, design-work tasks need to be suitable for hybrid-work environments, in the industrial metaverse and for collaboration of diverse groups of people. To achieve this goal, there is the need to develop and deploy novel solutions to ensure tangible business benefits.
The industrial metaverse requires changes in tasks and processes to make full use of immersive features. On the human side, digital skills are an obvious requirement to leverage this new computing environment. Related leadership skills are needed to effectively guide teams and to manage collaboration among specialists.
First, to get all staff members to participate and make use of these new technologies, finding workable approaches to create sufficient incentives and motivation are necessary to get employees involved on all levels of the organisation and across generations.
Second, human resources and managers need to ensure that employees will accept these novel solutions and adopt new ways of working. A long list of requirements exists to make workers and employees comfortable in using the industrial metaverse frequently. Worker motivation and the feeling of meaningfulness are important considerations that relate to social aspects of work.
On the data side, safety, security, and ethics of data collection, management and sharing already play major roles, but will do so even more in advanced virtual environments. Employee’s trust towards technology and applications are crucial; related, hardware needs to mature to enable a wide diversity of people to use applications effectively, efficiently and reliably. Finally, managers will need to understand the human interactions with the industrial metaverse better. What are the cognitive ergonomics and mental loads when working in hybrid worlds?
Third, corporate leaders need to create a conclusive strategy for employing the industrial metaverse and establishing the required capabilities for implementation, building and maintaining the digital and physical infrastructure. Standards and interfaces are required to ensure the usability of applications across operations and value chains – from the company level to entire industries to international collaborations. Many technologies still require development and advancement to implement comprehensive metaverse environments. Finally, ensuring a high level of cyber security will be a technological enabler, a crucial creator of trust across users and stakeholders, and a guarantor of corporate competitiveness.
It is worthwhile to highlight the importance of security and related intellectual property issues. Karoliina Salminen, lead of smart manufacturing at VTT, expresses concerns related to data collection, access, ownership, sharing and management. Such concerns apply to data that is collected from and by workers as well as from other sources. Privacy issues exist and there is a need to ensure the ethical use of collected data. Blockchain can be a technology enabler for authentication, interoperability, confidentiality and distributed databases.
There will be changes in business models and ownerships, new types of employment models, and new trade and transaction practices that require management – all considerations that will require time and a better understanding of the maturing metaverse. Another issue will be the ethical and sustainable use of the industrial metaverse and its applications.
Salminen highlights the need for European and particularly Finnish development activities to put these considerations at the core of creating responsible virtual environments. In my opinion, Europe – and particularly Finland – could play a crucial leadership role in developing manageable legislative frameworks.
Salminen also foresees several inter-connected metaverses. It is easy to see such a structure and framework emerging. On one hand, there is a need to keep a corporate metaverse shielded to ensure cyber security, preserve intellectual property and conform with legal requirements. On the other hand, a corporate metaverse only can live up to its fullest potential if supply chain participants, customers, partners and other stakeholders are able to extract operationally important information and to inject into the system crucial data that a firm needs to increase efficacy and efficiency in its operations.
Interfaces that connect these metaverses require careful design and diligent monitoring to avoid major data meltdowns, if not even physical catastrophes. Salminen names a list of considerations that will require investigation and discussion, such as the balancing issue of centralised versus decentralised governance, the relationship between government and company regulations, and questions related to rules and regulations in operation domains, processes and authentications.
The type of immersiveness is another design question including the use of augmented versus virtual reality (AR/VR) when leveraging immersive environments. Salminen points to the need in many industrial applications to be continuously connected to a physical object to have line of sight. AR is needed in these cases. In addition, if the system is providing information overlays for physical objects, the virtual visuals as well as the real-world objects need to be in view simultaneously.
VR, however, can find use in simulations, training and planning tasks. Many industrial tasks require moving around in different locations while performing different types of tasks. Therefore, future user interfaces need to dynamically adapt when changing tasks to offer the needed flexibility in work environments.
Salminen sees a pathway in which metaverse-related applications will become commonplace. In the future, it could be possible to integrate professional and personal metaverse experiences. Work-related information and personal entertainment, communication and more could integrate on the same devices.
Salminen says she is excited about what her life would look like if digital layers of services and information were available all of the time wherever she goes. It certainly will be interesting to explore how much of one’s daily life and pastime activities will really change when a wide range of layers for all types of interests becomes available. When asked what concerns keep her awake at night, she acknowledges the questions that revolve around the ethical use of collected data, privacy considerations and security issues.
VTT says it will play a role in exploring not only commercial and public opportunities of the emerging landscape, but also considerations how such a landscape could be designed and implemented in socially responsible and societally ethical ways. The organisation recently finished its first human-driven industrial metaverse project. The goal is to put employees first in this industrial-metaverse concept to reform industrial work. This project has resulted in a better understanding for creating scalable solutions across sectoral boundaries.
The company collaborated with many Finnish companies from various industrial and commercial sectors. Airport management company Finavia, civil-engineering firm Granlund, industrial-machinery provider KONE, telecommunications company Telia, contract manufacturer Valmet Automotive, construction company YIT, and metaverse provider ZOAN have been involved in the projects. Participants from a wide range of sectors and industries ensure the sharing of perspectives to develop an understanding of needs and challenges.
“The objective of the project is to identify work tasks in which the use of a metaverse would benefit both employees and the organisation,” says Salminen.
VTT has a long research background in several industrial metaverse enablers, such as extended reality (XR) software and hardware, spatial computing, robotics, human factors, human AI and human sensing, safety and cyber security, sensors, connectivity, critical systems, foresight, ethics, and data strategy and spaces. This comprehensive set of foundational and enabling technologies offers a unique combination of the needed technical and non-technical understanding for emerging opportunities and challenges in the industrial metaverse.
Finnish companies are now starting to see the future possibilities of industrial metaverse. Finland has the potential to carve out a leadership role in this area because the country has an already existing ecosystem of companies across many of the required technology and application areas. The country’s advanced educational system has resulted in readily available engineering and digitally literate talent meaning companies pursue open innovation and collaboration across sectors.
Finland could become a research and commercial hub for XR applications, the industrial metaverse and digital twins. The existing commercial and digital ecosystem combined with the small population number could establish Finland as a testbed for immersive-computing and industrial-metaverse landscapes. Such a testbed then could serve companies internationally to innovate metaverse-related concepts, establish standards and regulations, and create workable governance frameworks.
Martin Schwirn is the author of ‘Small Data, Big Disruptions: How to Spot Signals of Change and Manage Uncertainty’ (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior adviser of strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.