Augmented reality view using a smartphone, representing a 3D model of an engine turbine prototype. (image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com)
Augmented, mixed and virtual reality transform heavy-vehicle engineering
Stuart Thurlby, CEO of Theorem Solutions
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Augmented, mixed and virtual reality (AR, MR and VR) are everywhere. Over the past 12-18 months the number of new devices and apps being released has risen significantly and all of the big tech players like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Samsung, HTC, Facebook and HP (among others) are getting in on the action.
Although these new technologies have been developed by the gaming and social media giants, it was inevitable that the technology would eventually work its way into the engineering and manufacturing world, including the commercial vehicle, truck and off-highway industries.
So how does using technology that usually lets you race cars, shoot aliens and capture Pokémon characters translate into designing and building trucks, construction machinery and off-highway or defense vehicles?
The use of VR in the engineering and manufacturing space is nothing new, with CAVEs and Powerwalls having been used for decades. However, it has always had an enormous price tag and only a few are in the “privileged” position (mainly large automotive and aerospace OEMs) to be fully able to utilize the technology for visualization—until now.
Using AR, MR or VR technology in commercial, truck and off-highway engineering and manufacturing is still very much in its infancy. Most organizations are just starting to figure out if, and why, they need these new devices and how they can potentially harness the technology. Once the technology is understood, the benefits of using it in an industry where the products are complex and the production is large scale, are obvious.
Gaming graphics for engineering data
Gaming relies on the quality of its 3D graphics—without good graphics, games look and feel unrealistic, and lack quality. The use of graphics engines, along with additional technology such as motion capture, allows gaming developers to create incredibly sharp graphics that feed such interactive and immersive experiences. Gaming graphics’ quality and performance are more than capable of handling the complex needs of CAD data.
These high-performance graphics engines, combined with low-cost AR/MR and VR headsets, have resulted in a price point of tens of thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars for the CAVE or Powerwall.
With 3D CAD having been in use for 30 years by many companies in the automotive industry, the CAD assets that have been created can now be used by these new low-cost and high-performance devices.
Immersive experiences for design and production
Immersive experience platforms such as augmented, mixed and virtual reality, and the devices that deliver them, are being adopted by engineers to help with design and production.
For engineering, VR on the new devices can support: virtual design reviews, prototyping, building, assembly, service and training use-cases. It enables engineers to visualize and interact with their data in a far more realistic environment, without having to spend time and money on producing numerous physical models—and when the model is a 40-tonne truck, the benefit of not having to repeatedly create physical models is clear to see. The original data can be seen in the context of a digital scene representing the office, factory or open-air environment—a virtual reality work environment.
In comparison to VR’s established 30-year history, the “newer” AR and MR technologies offer totally new visual experiences, on portable “everyday” devices such as tablets and smartphones, or hands-free headsets and head-mounted displays.
Using AR—where the digital 3D content is overlaid onto the real world—means your 3D data can be used for Digital Twin applications, to aid maintenance personnel to repair complex plant and machinery, and train personnel at much lower cost. AR allows engineers to assess processes by overlaying 3D content in the factory environment and evaluate training and serviceability practices in situ.
MR is similar to AR in that it is an overlay of digital content onto the real world, but the MR content appears in the form of a hologram which sits in the real world, in real time, through a headset. Being a hologram, an engineer can walk around it and sit inside it just like a physical product, and this is done not in a digital world but rather in an office, factory or test facility.
Being in the real world means it is far more intuitive and natural, which improves understanding and enables decisions about form and fit to be quickly made. Changes can be made before any physical parts or plant is built, when mistakes are expensive to rectify.
Digital data, real environment
Passing CAD design data through a gaming graphics engine and then viewing it in an AR, MR or VR experience on a smartphone, tablet or headset, enables engineers to experience their products in the environments they design for and work in.
Using AR, MR or VR provides engineers with optimized capabilities on how best to use and interact with their design data in a close to “real” environment, while products are still in the early design stage, saving time and costs.
The growing accessibility of low-cost smartphones, tablets and headsets means that augmented, mixed and virtual reality technologies are no longer only available to those with VR CAVEs and Powerwalls.
Whilst it is still early days with the new hardware and software, undertaking proof of concepts now will enable engineering and manufacturing organizations to be ahead of the game. Many existing processes can harness the new technology, enabling new ways of performing established tasks.
Stuart Thurlby, CEO of Theorem Solutions, wrote this article for Truck & Off-Highway Engineering as part of our annual Executive Viewpoints series.
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