May 06, 2013
Credit: National Association of Manufacturing
Virtual reality has become a commonplace engineering tool for major aerospace manufacturers, where three-dimensional visualization systems are routinely used to aid design reviews.
But further down the supply chain, simulation environments into which designers can immerse themselves to navigate a structure or walk a cabin are too expensive—and unnecessary if what the company produces fits on a desktop, or in the hand of an engineer.
Avionics manufacturer Rockwell Collins decided to develop its own low-cost 3-D visualization system, initially to perform virtually what previously was done physically: to visually inspect new hardware designs to assess their manufacturability.
The company's goal in developing the Virtual Product Model (VPM) was to find manufacturing problems earlier in the design cycle, when new avionics boxes are still on the computer screen and before expensive prototypes have been produced.
“3-D virtual reality has been used at the prime level for over a decade, and we recognize its power for communicating and understanding designs and the impact of designs,” says Jim Lorenz, manager of advanced industrial engineering. “Large-scale fully immersive systems are appropriate at the platform level, but at the box level, on a tabletop, their expense is outside what we could deal with.”
Rockwell Collins's solution was to find commercial software that could be tailored to provide a low-cost way to take product data from its computer-aided design (CAD) system, convert it to 3-D and put it into a virtual environment “without specialist skills or vast expense,” says Kevin Fischer, manager of manufacturing technology pursuits.
Using 3-D glasses and a motion-capture system, an engineer can manipulate the virtual model of an avionics box, inspecting it from all angles to make sure it can be manufactured in the factory or repaired in the field. Several people can view the 3-D model collaboratively during a design review, or it can be sent to individual engineers and viewed in 2-D format on desktop workstations.