Virtual reality glasses

Where could virtual reality take your company?

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For many, virtual reality is synonymous with the world of Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Step into manufacturing, however, and VR is just part of the digital toolbox that today’s engineers use.

The advantage of using virtual reality (VR) in manufacturing is its capacity to enable you to ‘try before you buy’. The ability to virtually prototype new products, test manufacturing scenarios, including factory or facility layouts, before implementing them physically means that you can ‘fail faster’ –  but fail virtually. The High Value Manufacturing Catapult has used its expertise in VR to assist companies in the nuclear, automotive and aerospace sectors to do just this, reducing their development time, risk and cost while at the same time increasing stakeholder engagement.

Design visualisation is an important mechanism for communicating and reviewing the visual aspects of a design within the manufacturing process. In the premium automotive sector, the visual appeal of a vehicle is an important factor in the customers’ perception of quality. Traditionally, physical models have been the preferred means of visualising vehicle concepts, styling and design. In general terms, most people would prefer to hold a design review around a physical model, as opposed to a digital model, but this is not always practical or possible.

In the last decade, however, technology has started to deliver what VR always promised. From design reviews to gaming, we now talk about ‘immersive visualisation’ and ‘augmented reality’. We can manipulate and interact with photorealistic datasets in near-real time, giving the user the ability to make confident decisions on digital data sets.

So is it a case of ‘digital v physical’? Can we make a car with no physical models? In theory, perhaps, but in reality (in the premium sector at least) the two areas complement each other. In some cases, digital reviews may replace physical reviews and lead to greater efficiencies but in other areas there will still be a role for physical modelling. The goal is to minimise the use of physical models where cost and lead time are important factors and where a digital model can tell us more than a physical one. Using digital models to develop a design and, where relevant, using a single physical model to validate that design can provide the optimum solution.

Visualisation and VR can enable UK manufacturers to visualise their plant, products and processes in ways that were previously out of reach or imagination.

Specific opportunities for manufacturing will always depend on the sector in question, but in general it makes more sense to look at what have traditionally been considered the three core factors in manufacturing – cost, quality and time. Manufacturers are always striving to reduce costs, improve quality and get products to market more quickly, and making decisions earlier in the digital world is a recognised way of potentially improving all three. However, having the confidence to make these decisions is not always easy, and this is where the application of advanced visualisation tools can really help designers, engineers and managers to better understand and communicate ideas, concepts and data.

There are many benefits to employing visualisation technologies within manufacturing: firstly, the ability to communicate digital information in a realistic way, enabling confident and correct decisions to be made early in the new product development process. Secondly, the ability to train assembly and service engineers off-line in a virtual world, and then provide additional support with augmented reality (AR) in the workplace itself. If these two benefits come together, you can both design and engineer a product better, and achieve right-first-time assembly and rapid maintenance.

Moving forwards into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, the ability to train your workforce in safe virtual environments, and deploy information in AR work instructions, means that upskilling workforces is faster and more effective. This deployment route, combined with data overlays onto your ‘digital twin’ environment, means that UK manufacturing is really embracing the digital opportunity.

Although there are many definitions of Industry 4.0, common themes typically revolve around the collection of more data throughout the product lifecycle, and getting value from that data. In manufacturing, there can be a vast number of variables to monitor and complex analytics involved in the root-cause analysis of issues. Visualisation technologies can help identify, access and understand the growing amount of data that you are able to collect. This could range from identifying process drift on a production line to deviation from design on a construction site, but if you are able to quickly identify these potential problems through the visual representation of data, you can get to a point where processes are being corrected before products fall outside of their acceptable tolerances.

There are significant potential benefits for applied visualisation in the automotive, aerospace and construction sectors. In automotive design, where styling and aesthetics are critical, there is a tendency to defer design decisions until a physical model or prototype is made, and this is largely because of a lack of confidence in making decisions on digital data. However, there are significant challenges in achieving the level of photorealistic real-time rendering needed to replace a physical review, so there is still some technical development needed here.

In aerospace and construction, a big challenge is in the amount of skilled manual input in complex assembly processes. Here, there is an opportunity to augment a physical environment with digital design and engineering data to guide the operator. This could range from projecting an assembly sequence on to a complex component, to a tablet or head mounted display augmenting a construction environment with accurate positional data.

Most sectors have their preferred ways of doing things and when any potentially disruptive technology comes along there will always be some resistance to change. For example, the world of design has moved from drawing board, to 2D computer-aided design (CAD), to 3D CAD, but these changes have not happened overnight. The current generation of CAD designers have grown up and been educated on 3D digital data and are often happy to make decisions in a virtual world, but senior management who have to buy off these designs may be from a generation who feel more comfortable making decisions around a physical representation.

Historically, there has not always been a joined-up approach to visualisation and VR in the UK. There are various sector-specific special interest groups but no single strong voice to lobby policy-makers. This is now being addressed through the recent creation of ImmerseUK, and within this, the IET and High Value Manufacturing Catapult-backed Applied Visualisation Community, which brings together industry end users across various manufacturing sectors to share best practices and engage with research organisations to explore new applications and develop solutions.

Although in its early days, initial interest from industry has been strong, with manufacturers from a range of sectors sitting on the steering group. Working together with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and industry partners, the IET is promoting the use of advanced immersive visualisation to aid manufacturing companies. Recent applications have included factory layout planning, virtual prototyping, assembly training and human factors assessment.

Looking to explore the opportunities for applied visualisation, VR and AR, the IET Applied Visualisation Community is set up to support users exploring the benefits to applying advanced visualisation to a particular industrial domain across sectors. Encouraging the discussion on hardware and software advances and application in VR, AR and data capture and visualisation, the opportunity for manufacturing is wide-​ranging across industry sectors. The Community will help to promote the use of advanced visualisation tools and techniques.

The vision for the future is to create a strong, industry-led community, engaging with research organisations in collaborative R&D projects, progressing the application of advanced visualisation in the UK, and giving these companies a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

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