Automakers developing stand-alone technologies, such as driver-interface systems, will increasingly need to consider moving to a company-wide virtual model to create a digital twin of an evolving vehicle. It’s part of a trend to embrace real-time visualization from design, through production to sales. BMW, for example, in 2017 introduced virtual reality (VR) with additive manufacturing (3D printing) to support driver-interface research. And a computer gaming machine is the enabling technology.
That’s the view of Doug Wolff, technical manager of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, a widely available gaming engine. “We are going to see many more vehicle manufacturers taking this journey,” Wolff told SAE International. “Most major vehicle manufacturers are using real-time graphics engines across a growing range of 2D and 3D applications, but each one is generally a stand-alone system developed for a specific purpose.” He noted that there are big benefits from introducing “a single, company-wide model that begins its life with the earliest styling concepts, develops through R&D and vehicle engineering before supporting manufacturing, vehicle personalization and then marketing and sales.”
Development of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) represents a classic example of a potentially far more comprehensive VR application. “Each new system needs a new user interface, and because it is safety critical, it must be thoroughly validated,” Wolff explained. “Yet there is limited prior knowledge, so there is no accepted starting point!” Compounding that approach are the varied requirements of a global market: Is the right solution for Germany also the right solution for drivers in China, for example. Wolff estimates that for a vehicle with worldwide distribution, there may be more than 30 design options to test, with collaboration needed from specialists spread across the globe.
The real costs of VR
In BMW’s Mixed Reality (MR) Laboratory, engineers sit in a physical vehicle buck that provides the tactile driver input, while the variable hardware components are viewed in VR via Unreal Engine, using commercially available headsets. “The difference in cost compared with previous-generation visualization systems is night and day,” Wolff said. “All that is needed is a high-end computer games machine and some off-the-shelf VR hardware. The cleverness is in the visualization Engine and the way the engineers use it.”
Low-cost computer power is one of several trends that have accelerated the adoption of mixed reality (MR). Parallel developments in 3D printing are bringing additional dimensions to MR, allowing more-representative touchpoints that can be built faster and in greater variety, allowing more options to be tested in hardware, Wolff explained. With MR, engineers, ergonomists and stylists can test different design concepts without leaving the laboratory, he said.
The ability of Unreal Engine to run on distributed, low-cost machines via the cloud now is being employed by Daimler, too. The set-up allows engineers to share VR models anywhere in the world, using just a laptop and a VR headset. “They can evaluate designs, annotate the models, adjust sizes and finishes, reposition elements and save files back to the central PDM (Product Data Management) system, all in a multi-user immersive environment,” Wolff said. The arrangement can be shared with colleagues, facilitating design and engineering teams located across the world to collaborate more effectively than they could if they were using traditional methods of video conferencing or telephone.
Daimler has described this system as “a multiplayer online game for engineers.” Their idea was to integrate single-click access to CAD data with the power of a multi-user gaming environment driven by Unreal Engine, utilizing the same technology that underpins many significant computer games and cinematic effects. Wolff noted that their experience with the system had shown that engineers found it “much easier” to judge sizes and work together on problem solving if they could interact around a scalable, sectionable 3D model. And users of the system discovered that their ability to hold ad hoc collaborative sessions had increased productivity.
“Single source of truth”
Wolff regards the key to many of the new-generation VR systems that are helping to solve these challenges as being the ability to transfer data between the visualization engine and CAD in real time without pre-processing. The VR model becomes (to use a recent buzz term) “a single source of truth” – a digital twin that evolves continuously as the design process moves from styling to production.
According to Wolff, the direct link to CAD means “the VR model can be employed at each stage of the vehicle’s product life without conflict, duplication or any of the risks that can plague parallel engineering.” He said the single model will begin its life as a tool for the styling team, then progress to the industrialization stage. There, designers work with engineers to translate the vision into an affordable, comfortable vehicle that will meet all the necessary regulations.
Heiko Wenczel, director of industry management at Epic Games, said the company’s clients are finding it much easier to resolve the often conflicting requirements of each specialization if they work together on a photo-realistic vehicle model. “It’s a great example of how improved tools can create a ‘digital thread’ – an integrated view of the vehicle’s data throughout its lifecycle, across traditionally siloed functions.
“I’ve watched specialists in packaging, thermal, BIW [body-in-white] and NVH [noise, vibration and harshness] using a VR model to work interactively together as they strive to find space for additional systems – such as electrification – eliminating many of the traditional delays that slow decision making,” Wenczel said. He added that electrification also is one of the drivers for the introduction of VR into manufacturing planning. “Using the VR vehicle model, production processes can be optimized in a virtual assembly hall before being set up in the real world,” he said. “The training of operators can then begin, even before hardware is ready.”