Innovation Management

The future of engineering: virtual technology refreshes the design process

1 June 2017


The future of engineering: virtual technology refreshes the design process

Far from our preconceived ideas, engineering is taking a greater and greater interest in the world of virtual technology. While the industry has always used Computer Aided Design (CAD), such as CATIA, the potential of such software is limited. It looks like reality, in three different forms, may be the answer: 

  • Augmented reality (AR), which uses a device to superimpose elements on real-life objects (or a geographical position). Within its environment and line of vision, the AR device displays information about the object, such as performance, diagnostic information and geometry.
  • Virtual reality (VR), which plunges the user in a digitally created and interactive world. Using highly efficient headsets, it is nowadays possible to turn 360°, or even move around in this virtual world.
  • Mixed reality (MR) is an evolution of augmented reality, as it also incorporates virtual elements into the real world. Unlike augmented reality, the two types of content co-exist and interact to create a new environment.

Virtual technology opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. Firstly, in the design process, where it offers a very interesting potential for collaboration and bridges the gap to 3D. It also facilitates equipment management and the treatment of production problems, key to maximising the client’s ROI.

Uses and benefits in the design process

The engineering industry still relies heavily on CAD and digital modelling (with traditional keyboard, mouse, screen and tablets for creating pieces). These tools currently limit users, preventing them from interacting with the physical world. One of the advantages of augmented and mixed reality, for example, is that they make design more intuitive and natural. It becomes very direct. In the virtual world, a piece can be created and changed as many times as necessary.

Today, the more concrete applications highlight the collaborative aspect of new virtualisation tools. With mixed reality, we animate objects virtually and see in concrete terms what their real-life existence would resemble. Through voice commands and hand signals, we can create and/or modify a new model very quickly. If we need to discuss the model with a colleague, we can. We can examine and change it together, as if we were working on a physical model — pointing out the issues, individually correcting them and checking the results. That can be done together, in real time or not, and thousands of miles apart.

Two concrete examples:

  1. Design models for a new work cell in a factory have just been produced. A quote is sent to the client. Using a headset, on the actual factory floor, it is now possible for the client to see how the real cell would function. The stakeholders can therefore walk across, inspect, take notes and assess the changes to be made before it is put into operation, and thus check the cell is properly designed in the real environment.
  2. Some products are part of the Internet of Things (IoT). The data generated indicates that a critical fault will occur in the upcoming days on a client unit. Equipped with an AR headset, a services team can use AR and MR to inspect the product on site, which is now overlaid with diagnostic information and the indicators needed to make a quick decision. Completing the maintenance with AR allows technicians to replace the faulty part or subsystem by directly visualising the maintenance task to be carried out.

Virtual design and 3D printing

Of all the benefits, one in particular stands out. We are now able to design a piece in the virtual world, and test it in the real world before starting production, thanks to 3D printers. It is already possible for prototypes or models, and soon for real products. Once again, the collaborative aspect is key. Several people can work on this design project, wherever they are, with the aid of video streaming and headsets.

3D printing allows companies and private individuals to rapidly prototype ideas for new pieces or products. It also enables them to reduce the cost of creating products (savings achieved in the supply chain, waste and product storage) and maximise ROI. The advantages of such technology are capable of revolutionising several industries. It has already helped the automobile and aviation industries drastically cut delivery times vis-à-vis traditional engineering methods, through quicker development and testing of components in the actual environment.

Using augmented reality to circulate information in real time

Lastly, the IoT and AR bring large improvements in equipment management and the treatment of production problems. They can provide, for example, real-time information on manufacturing machines. We can see real-time production statistics, identify faults and visualise settings as well as all other information needed for their maintenance.

This results in quicker and more precise decision making because all the information is given directly. IoT devices installed on these machines collect data which is sent to the server. The information is then converted into visual signals for the operator e.g. a machine flashes red when there is a problem. The machines’ configuration can be different for each company, and the operator can thus visualise the information in real time.

The potential advantages of virtual technology are vast. It can improve customer relations and satisfaction, reduce losses, increase ROI and minimise physical back-and-forths, which in turn means the customer is more satisfied with the product. Live design is also made possible thanks to 3D printing. Moreover, new design methods enable a piece to be fabricated with all the important information available from the start. And when it comes to quoting clients, an almost-finalised model can be provided, allowing the client to see their prototype, model or piece in its environment before the actual production.

In the very near future, all this technology will be part and parcel of engineering. In under a year, companies will be making full use and enjoying all its benefits: better ROI, better efficiency, more agility, an optimised design process and shorter delivery times. Every industry will be affected, but particularly the aviation, transport and energy sectors, for whom being able to visualise the environment is particularly key to designing a product to the utmost precision.

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