Virtually there

The use of virtual reality to assist in designing manufacturing processes is growing. E&T visits Airbus in Cheshire to find out how they are using such a system to make the wings for the Airbus A350 XWB.

Since Morton Heilig unveiled his Sensorama cinema back in the early 1960s, the topic of virtual reality (VR) has intrigued humanity. The ability to interact with a computer simulated environment has opened immense possibilities, principally in entertainment.

The world of cinema has been portraying VR scenarios since Steven Lisberger's 1982 film 'Troon' and followed on with such celluloid encounters as the Wachowski brother's 'Matrix' saga and David Cronenberg's downright weird 'EXistenZ'.

But it has been the burgeoning speed and processing power of computers that has allowed VR to seep into our daily lives with computer games and theme parks such as Disney Quest in Orlando, Florida.

But it is not just the pursuit of pleasure that is the domain of VR, manufacturing has realised the potential that it offers and is starting to develop products that use its unique abilities. Motor manufacturers have led the way, as they often do, with companies such as Mercedes developing their virtual factory concept, but an application at the Airbus Broughton factory has taken this concept one step further and delivered a truly immersive experience.

The company has just taken delivery of a complete Virtalis StereoWorks VR suite. The system comprises a 3D stereo, dual channel, Christie projection system with Intersense head and hand tracking and a heavy duty, Haption, 6-DOF, force feedback system.

Haption device

The inclusion of the Haption device delivers an added dimension to the set-up. Haptic systems - the word comes from Greek and literally means 'I fasten on to' - include tactile information, generally known as force feedback.

The system has been procured to assist in the validation of methods and process improvements of composites manufacturing required for the wings of the new A350 XWB aircraft that are being manufactured at Broughton.

"Many manufacturing organisations such as Airbus, or anyone who is designing and manufacturing a product that is going to be made, somehow uses CAD data as its base,"says Julian Ford, business development manager for aerospace at Virtalis, who supplied the system. "What we have done essentially is bolted on a visualisation system to their CAD environment which allows them to visualise the CAD data stereoscopically."

CAD data is predominantly 3D, but normally it is viewed on a 2D screen or as a 2D projection. Stereoscopic project adds depth. "You see things far more clearly as you do in real life," Ford adds.

Stereoscopic view

It does not just portray the CAD image in real life but has an important added feature in that it tracks the position of the user and adjusts what is displayed to suit the real life perspective. If he crouches down it displays the view the user would have looking up at the wing.

The system has two projectors behind the screen, projecting on to the screen from the rear, and the images from the two projectors are blended into one contiguous image. Unfortunately, at the moment it only operates in a small room at Broughton but plans are afoot to move it to a larger environment in March.

"You rear project so that when you are moving around in front of the screen you are not casting shadows on the image," Ford says. "When you track somebody in front of the machine, you track their position in space and that alters the perspective of the display according to the position of the person viewing the screen. Normally if you crouch down in front of the screen the visuals do not change, but if you crouch down in front of this system when you are being tracked, the perspective will change to reflect your relative position.

"This can look a little weird for onlookers, but normally tracked environments are for a single onlooker. So he moves around, looking in the wing."

With the Airbus A350 XWB, Broughton are developing new manufacturing processes. The wing is to be manufactured from composites, as well as being manufactured in a horizontal configuration instead of vertical to entail massive adjustments in the processes.

"What this environment does is allow them to simulate the process of how they can actually build this wing."

It is not just the CAD data for the product - in this case the wing - but any other tool, jig or machinery involved can be created using the Delmia programme so that interaction between humans and robots can be viewed as well.

That process is aided by the Haption device. Ford explains that this is, in essence, a big robot arm that allows them to interact with the screen and figure out whether the technician can gain access to perform the required job. It picks up collisions between the different 3D geometries. "So, if you've got a tool and you want to get it in a hole, or round a corner, is that physically practical, is the hole big enough? Are the angles correct so that he can get his arm in and bend his elbow? It provides real collision detection and force feedback."

Geoff Tantum, Airbus UK's engineering group leader for simulation, explains: "We'd been looking at VR technology for some time. It was the combination of our Dassault Systèmes PLM software gaining integral VR enablement and the formation of a dedicated simulation team here that galvanised us.

"We wanted a system that would take our Catia and Delmia product lifecycle management data and turn it into a 3D VR model automatically, without any need for translation. We also wanted a system that would link into a high-end haptics system, allowing VR to become an integral, day to day tool for our manufacturing engineers.

 "The choice of Haption was also clear, as this is the Haptics system already in use by our colleagues in France for design engineering. We are the first part of Airbus that is using VR technology for manufacturing and we are currently in the testing phase. Our aim is to push the technology to its limits and, in doing so, we are tapping into both Dassault's and Virtalis' expertise."

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