Rapid prototyping, married with augmented reality technologies, is starting to help manufacturing companies significantly reduce the time it takes to bring their products to market.

According to Alfred Pargfrieder, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise smart engineering consultant, many manufacturers are either exploring or deploying augmented reality (AR), Internet of Things sensors, and other smart engineering technologies to gain a competitive advantage.

Several manufacturers have seen significant reductions in build times using smart engineering technologies, said Pargfrieder. One example is a carmaker that reduced the time it takes to design a new model from three or four years to one year; another was an airplane manufacturer that cut the design time for one plane by two to four years.

According to IDC, analysts see major growth in one piece of the smart engineering process in coming years: the AR and related virtual reality (VR) markets. Combined spending on VR and AR will reach $17.8 billion this year, up from about $9.1 billion in 2017.

Global spending on VR and AR will have a compound annual growth rate of 98.8 percent through 2021, IDC predicted.

VR-related gaming will drive the numbers in the near term. However, other IDC research projects that commercial spending on VR and AR systems will see triple-digit spending growth through 2021. The researchers expect that the two commercial sectors spending the most on VR and AR this year will be distribution and services and manufacturing and resources.

Smart engineering processes can save manufacturers millions of dollars by identifying potential flaws in products before they ship, in addition to reducing the time to ship a product, Pargfrieder said. Using AR and IoT sensors, engineers “can virtually see what’s going on inside” a product, he added.

The smart engineering process starts with a computer-aided design and then moves to computer-aided engineering stress simulations. Then, a manufacturer can create a prototype with a 3D printer, inspect the prototype with AR, and move to testing using IoT sensors.

At one HPE event, a series of sensors attached to a bike were designed to test the performance and stability of parts like the seat, the steering, and the wheels. Using an AR headset from Epson or another vendor, an engineer can get a digital overlay on the bicycle that shows stress points or other problems that should be fixed before the bike ships to customers.

The use of AR glasses to inspect a product offers several advantages over using tablets or other handheld devices, Pargfrieder noted. The glasses free up a design or maintenance engineer’s hands to interact with the product or machinery and to point out potential problem areas to members of the team connected to the glasses’ video stream.

AR and rapid prototyping technologies are the future of manufacturing, Pargfrieder predicted. Look for AR glasses to get smaller and easier to use, with contact-like lenses that are worn on the eyeballs.

“AR is coming in a lot of areas,” he said.