By Richard Gotch
Successful applications of virtual reality and mixed reality are leading European vehicle manufacturers to develop much more comprehensive game plans across their businesses.
When BMW reported in 2017 that it was combining virtual reality (VR) with additive manufacturing (3D printing) to develop an all-new way of assessing driver interface options, it was a stand-alone project. Today, the company has embraced real-time visualisation technology throughout its business, from design to production planning to sales.
“We are going to see many more vehicle manufacturers take this journey as they prepare for the big step of introducing a single, company-wide model that is a digital twin of the evolving vehicle,” comments Doug Wolff, technical manager with Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, the visualisation platform chosen by BMW as a cornerstone of its visualisation strategy.
“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 standalone system developed for a specific purpose. 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 personalisation and then marketing and sales.”
A company’s first experience with virtual reality is usually a deep technical challenge that would munch through impossible amounts of resources if addressed using conventional approaches. An example is a rapid acceleration in the adoption of advanced driver-assistance systems. Each new system needs a new user interface, and because it is safety-critical it must be thoroughly validated. Yet there is limited prior knowledge, so there is no accepted starting point. On top of that proliferation, we are now working in a global market: is the right solution for Germany also the right solution for China? There may be 30 design options to test, with collaboration needed from specialists spread across the globe.
Mixed reality (MR) provides a fast, affordable way to find the answers. In BMW’s Mixed Reality Laboratory, engineers sit in a physical vehicle buck that provides the tactile input while the variable components are viewed in virtual reality using commercially available headsets. “The difference in cost compared with previous generation visualisation systems is night and day,” adds Wolff. “All that is needed is a high-end computer games machine and some off-the-shelf virtual reality hardware. The cleverness is in the visualisation engine and the way the engineers use it.”
Low-cost computer power is just one of several trends that have accelerated the adoption of mixed reality. Parallel developments in additive manufacturing 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. With MR, engineers, ergonomists and stylists can test different design concepts without leaving the laboratory.
At Daimler, the ability of Unreal Engine to run on distributed, low-cost machines via the cloud is being employed to allow engineers to share virtual reality models anywhere in the world, using nothing more complex than their 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 shared with their colleagues. The company says this allows design and engineering teams located in different parts of the world to collaborate far more effectively than they could if they were using the traditional methods of video conferencing or telephone.
“Daimler has referred to this system as ‘a multiplayer online game for engineers,’ because their idea was to integrate single-click access to CAD data with the power of a multi-use games environment,” says Wolff, referring to Unreal’s heritage as the technology underpinning many of the world’s most impressive computer games and cinematic effects. “Their experience with the system has shown that engineers find it much easier to judge sizes and to work together on problem-solving if they can interact around a scalable, sectionable 3D model. They also found that the ability to hold ad-hoc collaborative sessions has increased productivity.”
The key to many of the new-generation virtual reality systems that are helping to solve these challenges has been the ability to transfer data between the visualisation engine and CAD in real-time, without pre-processing. The VR model becomes what Wolff calls ‘a single source of truth’; a digital twin that evolves continuously as the design process moves from styling to production. The direct link to CAD means the virtual reality 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.
The single model will begin its life as a tool for the styling team, then progress to the industrialisation stage in which designers work with engineers to translate the vision into an affordable, comfortable vehicle that will meet all the necessary regulations. Here, adds Wolff’s colleague Heiko Wenczel, director of industry management at Epic, clients are finding it much easier to resolve the often-conflicting requirements of each specialisation if they work together on a photo-realistic vehicle model.
Wenczel says this is a great example of how improved tools can create what he calls ‘a digital thread’; that is, an integrated view of the vehicle’s data throughout its lifecycle, across traditionally siloed functions.
“An aspect of my job that I particularly enjoy is hearing how our customers are becoming much more collaborative,” he enthuses. “I’ve watched specialists in packaging, thermal, body-in-white and NVH (Noise Vibration & Harshness) using a VR model to work interactively together as they strive to find space for additional systems, eliminating many of the traditional delays that slow down decision making.”
At the other end of the vehicle journey from sketch to showroom, electrification is also one of the drivers for the introduction of virtual reality into manufacturing planning. Using the VR vehicle model, production processes can be optimised in a virtual assembly hall before being set up in the real world. The training of operators can then begin, even before the hardware is ready. Wenczel says there are a growing number of programmes in which Unreal Engine is being used to optimise plant operations, both for all-new facilities and for existing lines where space must be found to include the assembly of electric and electrified vehicles alongside more traditional powertrain options.
“Back in 2017, each department of a vehicle manufacturer was testing VR in their own specialist field. Today, those applications have proven their value and our industry is ready to join them up,” concludes Wolff. “The company-wide VR model isn’t just a technical solution, another digital tool to improve speed and efficiency: it’s a new way of working together that will become a cornerstone of every new vehicle programme.”
(Richard Gotch is Deputy Chair of the Global Automotive Engineering Federation FISITA and Managing Director of the Motor Industry Communicators Association.)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)