Immersed In Their Work

Virtual-reality environments allow engineers, suppliers and customers to actually interact with new virtual designs.

Immersion in 3-D virtual-reality environments may represent the next quantum leap in simulation and virtual prototyping, and few companies are as enthusiastic about the technology as John Deere & Co., Moline, Ill., and office-furniture maker Herman Miller Inc., Zeeland, Mich. "We want to be so virtual that some day in the future the first physical prototype we make is representative of our first production unit and is good enough to be saleable," says Robert Moulds, vice president, engineering, John Deere. "To accomplish this we plan to use virtual reality collaboratively among our units at John Deere and with our suppliers and customers for visualization and analysis." Both companies have invested in "power walls," a system of screens in three sections totaling about 10 feet high and 20 feet across. The sections can remain flat, or fold in on themselves to form a three-sided box. With the aid of 3-D glasses, images projected on the screens appear as life-size 3-D objects. The images are driven by 3-D solid CAD model data. Web connections allow the images to be linked to any location. Herman Miller uses the technology by creating an office background, then immersing new product designs into their actual environment. Not all the screens need be devoted to product images, and in fact can host three separate activities at the same time for collaborative sessions. "We can have a new design image on one screen, a virtual conference image with suppliers, customers or designers on another screen, and an engineering drawing on the other," says Brad MacLean, vice president, development and engineering at Herman Miller, who uses technology provided by Panoram Technologies Inc., Sun Valley, Calif. In the immersive world, one can walk around images, look under and inside them, even assemble and disassemble them, which are great benefits when showing customers new designs according to John Deere, which chose technology from Mechdyne Corp., Marshalltown, Iowa. The company will use virtual reality for manufacturing simulations and analyses that suppliers can participate in as well, with desktop virtual-reality systems at their locations that eventually will become affordable. Hose and wire harness routing and engine installation both from a design and a maintenance/training standpoint are current virtual-reality applications. In the future John Deere will apply virtual-reality simulation in fluid flow dynamics, operator cab ergonomics, machinery operation, and factory-floor layout. "Giving an expert the opportunity to actually interact with the simulation can enhance his understanding significantly," says James Bernard, director, Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State. "Time and again I've heard people say, 'Aha, now I get it,' after immersion in a virtual-reality experience like this."

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