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The Virtues of Virtual Products PUBLIC ACCESS

Interactive-Product-Simulation Software is Enabling Manufacturers to get More Bang for the Buck from their Existing Engineering Data.

[+] Author Notes

Steve Ghee is the director of engineering at DIVISION in Bristol, England, which has V.S. operations in San Mateo, Calif.

Mechanical Engineering 120(06), 60-63 (Jun 01, 1998) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.1998-JUN-1

Manufacturing and engineering companies around the world are building virtual products that can communicate across the barriers of time, distance, discipline, and culture. Interactive-product-simulation (IPS) technology complements the processes used to create three-dimensional geometry. IPS software leverages a company's investment in computer-aided design (CAD) design by providing earlier access to prototypes, faster updates than with physical models, enterprise-wide distribution of information in an easy-to-understand format, support for existing processes, and long-term value that extends beyond the finalization of product designs. IPS provides real-time interaction via the virtual product-a simulated version of the final functioning design that can include functional simulations, animations, mechanisms, and simulated humans or ‘manikins.’ IPS has many applications in the concept phase, where one of the most critical challenges for manufacturers is the economic evaluation and frequent review of multiple high-level concepts and configurations. PS enables engineers, manufacturing and maintenance staff, and even customers to visualize and operate complex virtual products so that they can improve the designs' manufacturability, ergonomics, and maintainability.

Manufacturing and engineering companies around the world have begun to build virtual products that can communicate across the barriers of time, distance, discipline, and culture. These firms are finding that the return on investment from the application of interactive-product-simulation ([PS) technology to create visual databases of CAD, CAM, CAE, and industrial-design (ID) geometry is one of the most exciting recent developments in computer simulation. Early adopters have already discovered that the integration of [PS software can enhance collaborative engineering, significantly reduce design-cycle time as well as the need for physical prototypes and models, and increase a product's ultimate market acceptance and penetration.

IPS complements the processes used to create three-dimensional geometry. Whereas CAD software is typically designed for non-real-time modeling, IPS is a real-time visualization and interaction system. CAD/ID/CAE/ CAM geometry is exported to [PS software, which comprises two core components: large-scale assembly visualization and navigation, and the ability to simulate a product's functionality or behaviors. These components provide a communication medium that can be shared across networks, manipulated, and analyzed.

This technology provides significant returns during the entire product life cycle, enabling designers, engineers, customers, and others not only to visualize and navigate design geometry but also to interact with the functional characteristics of a prospective product. Because generally expensive CAD software is not required to view or interact with the virtual product, IPS is as effective for meeting the specific needs of individual design teams or functional groups as it is for the far larger number of users involved with a large-scale or company-wide [PS installation.

IPS software leverages a company's investment in CAD design by providing earlier access to prototypes, faster updates than with physical models, enterprise wide distribution of information in an easy-to-understand format, support for existing processes, and long-term value that extends beyond the finalization of product designs. These gains are based on the ability to involve a far greater number of people- all those who are typically involved in the life cycle of a product-in that product's original design, development, and distribution. A visual database enhances product understanding at all of its stages: concept, detailed design, analysis, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, project and enterprise management, and operator and service personnel training.

The collective and collaborative input of people, from focus-group participants to field-service personnel, in real time with a virtual product that looks and behaves like the real thing results in better products. IPS tools provide a forum to reduce the costs of design by addressing concerns very early in the design cycle.

IPS provides real-time interaction via the virtual product- a simulated version of the final functioning design that can include functional simulations, animations, mechanisms, and simulated humans or "manikins." This software tool also makes it possible to incorporate and quickly evaluate design changes in the functioning virtual product while it solves problems in the course of product reviews, design, user training, and product demonstrations.

Increasingly, this type of software has been integrated into system infrastructures to create visual databases of CAD/ ID/ CAB/CAM geometry, and is now available as a front-end graphical user interface for information held in product- data-management (PDM) system vaults. By providing an intuitive interface to select parts and retrieve part information via a PDM system, IPS has become an indispensable and inexpensive distributed communication medium.

Because a company can economically incorporate IPS, and thus enhance communication or extend its benefits throughout the entire enterprise, the manufacturing industry now has an important real-time, collaborative simulation tool at its disposal. Such a tool greatly facilitates collaborative engineering goals-the ability to involve all stakeholders, regardless of location or discipline, in a product's development, from aesthetics, ergonomics, and functionality to consideration of the company's ability to build, maintain, and service the product.

Once geometric data have been imported into the IPS software, visualization or " fly-through" is the first and most widely used component. IPS software greatly reduces the size of CAD/ ID/ CAE/ CAM files by converting the native data into an optimal format that makes the loading and unloading of geometry up to 60 times faster than the original geometry. Consequently, IPS enables the navigation of massive assemblies in real time with high fidelity, addressing to a large degree the problem of fit in both static and dynamic parts and products.

Conversely, functional simulation enables real-time human interaction with whatever motions, behaviors, or movements a product is designed or destined to have. What technically distinguishes it from visualization is the user's ability to script product behaviors. For example, dVISE IPS software from DIVISION in San Mateo, Calif., has a point-and-click utility called a behavior editor that provides access to behavior properties. This series of pull-down menus can give the model intelligence by defining its response to user-driven events. An event may generate a causal effect; a touch of a button on the dVISE model, for example, may sound a bell or signal in response. More advanced relationships can also be scripted, such as the relational configurations in which an oil filter can only be moved so far before a bracket must be relocated.

More-intuitive user interfaces make it easier for many individuals with diverse skill sets to load and run animations of a complex product's functional behavior, assembly, and maintenance, among other applications.

Grahic Jump LocationMore-intuitive user interfaces make it easier for many individuals with diverse skill sets to load and run animations of a complex product's functional behavior, assembly, and maintenance, among other applications.

IPS has many applications in the concept phase, where one of the most critical challenges for manufacturers is the economic evaluation and frequent review of multiple high-level concepts and configurations. There are typically two objectives: the assessment of multiple configurations to make trade-off decisions, and clear communication of the design and its functionality. Trade-off considerations usually include comparisons of cost, weight, aesthetics, ergonomics, manufacturability, serviceability, and so forth, while the discussion of functionality is intended to emphasize the product's utility for executives, customers, and other nonengineers to generate more-effective feedback.

The use of IPS models in early focus-group sessions can yield more-effective feedback from potential customers, leading to higher market acceptance for the ultimate product. To accomplish this, designers, engineers, and marketers collaborate in the development of a virtual product to be evaluated by potential customers during focus sessions. For aesthetic elements, IPS users can easily add textures, various light sources, multiple colors, different surface qualities and finishes (including reflectivity), and even different geometries to a single virtual product.

As different geometries are evaluated during an aesthetic review, they may also be subject to modification in a configuration trade-off review. The versions can be reviewed as the changes are made, and they can be assigned to different computer keyboard keys for fast comparative testing. Evaluation of a wide range of options can provide effective feedback for improving the overall product design.

In the design and detailing phase of product development, during which a primary nee d is to conduct frequent design reviews, IPS tools provide. a means of integrating work from many different people and processes for group review, discussion, and decisions. As users can add real-time animations to the virtual product and edit them to indicate part paths and sequences as well as check for collision and clearances, cross-disciplinary collaborative design reviews can quickly evaluate individual ideas in the context of overall product assembly, maintenance, and usability.

A product's speed to market and its market acceptance are greatly affected by the frequency of design iterations. IPS significantly increases the speed and frequency of the iterative and collaborative process of design, testing, evaluation, and redesign. Engineers need to make changes, then evaluate them quickly and easily in the context of functional specifications. Some of the more-common design criteria are ease of assembly, ergonomics, maintainability, packaging, serviceability, weight distribution, and usability.

Physical prototypes traditionally have been constructed to understand these issues. While they provide real-time interaction and simulation of intended functionality, these prototypes can be extremely expensive. In contrast, IPS tools address the same issues by translating design geometry into easily understandable virtual products. Once the geometry is exported from the CAD system, the IPS software's visualization and functional simulation features can add collision/ clearance, animations, manikins, joints, or other characteristics to duplicate the model's qualities.

The additional intelligence can help a design engineer work through the proper sequence of a procedure while he or she evaluates the ease of assembly of any geometry or part-location changes. If the intended maintenance person was unable to complete the sequence due to collisions, lack of access, inappropriate tools, or simply problematic designs, further investigation and subsequent reviews could be easily completed.

Another primary concern for manufacturers today is the coordination of disparate design teams. Traditional communication and collaboration often result in significant expenses from travel, personnel relocations, and telecommunications. IPS addresses most of these needs by enabling real-time linking of multiple sites in one virtual product; the result is a far more efficient use of time than traditional meetings. IPS's scalable interface architecture enables two or more participants running Sun, SGI, Unix, or Windows NT or 95 to communicate in real time using low-bandwidth lines. For example, a small automotive supplier could link its serviceability engineer with an automaker's design engineer. They would each be able to pick up objects independently and move them around on screen, just as if they were standing beside a physical prototype.

IPS enables engineers, manufacturing and maintenance staff, and even customers to visualize and operate complex virtual products so that they can improve the designs' manufacturability, ergonomics, and maintainability.

Grahic Jump LocationIPS enables engineers, manufacturing and maintenance staff, and even customers to visualize and operate complex virtual products so that they can improve the designs' manufacturability, ergonomics, and maintainability.

Incorporating IPS into product development begins with the export of 3-D geometry to an IPS software tool such as dVISE, either directly from the CAD / ID / CAE/ CAM/ PDM programs or off-line. From there, the user can immediately visualize the model. If the user wants to simulate product functionality, the model's behavioral constraints and joints are relatively easy to specify by defining viewpoints and animations. Additional visual details or properties can be added to emphasize the realism of the environment in which the IPS model is shown. To generate feedback on issues of particular interest, the individual can use text features to annotate the areas of interest. Once added, these additional IPS properties can be retained and recalled from the PDM systems or the source CAD/ ID /CAE/CAM data. The final step is to distribute the IPS model to interested parties over a corporate intranet or the Internet.

The Internet provides an extremely inexpensive and widely distributed format for distributing and soliciting product information and feedback. Distributing an IPS model via local networks, wide-area networks, or the Internet is very easy. Access via the World Wide Web is simple and intuitive through Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer browsers. IPS software uses standard Hypertext Markup Language editors to add text and graphics, and can convert animations, camera views, and fly-throughs to HTML buttons with a simple command. The extremely low cost of distributing product designs via the Internet makes assembly/disassembly sequencing, training, and ergonomic feedback into ideal applications.

Any IPS interaction, including the manipulation of the manikins, can be done through multiple scalable interfaces, ranging from a simple two-dimensional desktop, through 3-D stereo glasses and a space ball, to full virtual-reality immersion. The value of immersion in today's design environments is commonly underestimated, despite the fact that users gain an enhanced sense of scale and clearances that is simply unattainable with a flat screen or even with stereo glasses.

IPS provides significant benefits throughout the product life cycle. Several distinct areas exist in which returns can be quantifiably measured. Earlier this year, a major aerospace manufacturer reported the following results due to the implementation of IPS on a project: a 33-percent reduction in design-cycle time, 25- percent reduction in personnel, and 65-percent reduction in prototypes.

In addition to the reduction in physical prototypes, engineering change orders (ECOs) will likely be reduced, thanks to enhanced communication and design collaboration. Once a product has been released, ECOs typically cost tens of thousands of dollars; should a change order require field service or involve a product recall, the economic penalty rises exponentially. With complex and large-volume products, the potential savings can be very significant. For example, a car manufacturer could pay for the implementation of IPS with plant-floor savings of less than a minute in product-line time.

Field-service costs will also be reduced by a reduction in service visits, or even by their complete elimination. As manufacturers in industries around the world compete more and more on postsales criteria, this area is becoming especially critical. Postsales service or interaction with customers can make or break a deal for many companies. An emphasis on serviceability upstream ensures that field-service people will go through fewer steps, and will have fewer subassemblies and parts to deal with long after a product has been manufactured.

Companies worldwide have also used IPS successfully in marketing and sales. Prospects have been shown virtual products at trade shows, bid proposals, and launch presentations. This has given them an opportunity to see and virtually use what they are considering buying.

In short, the ability to visualize the geometry of product design data bases using IPS software enables both large and small manufacturers to achieve a far better sense of the functionality, scale and clearance, aesthetics, and ergonomics of their products. IPS has already delivered impressive results in the areas previously discussed, but it can also be used for point-of-sale displays, simulation-based assembly documentation, human-factors work, operational availability, technical publications, and factory-floor simulation.

The use of IPS will undoubtedly continue to grow, following the early adoption and evaluation of IPS by leading manufacturers in the automotive, aerospace, consumer, industrial-goods, and defense-contracting industries. In response to the demands of these manufacturers, IPS software has been vigorously refined in recent years. DIVISION's dVISE already has been embedded into several of the leading CAD product lines, and it is available as a visualization front-end with IMAN, Sherpa, Metaphase, and EPD. Connect PDM systems. As a result of this integration work, the major barriers to widespread data and geometry implementation already have been addressed.

The manufacturing community began its evaluation of IPS several years ago and has thoroughly analyzed the cost/ benefit ratio, with positive results. Although the technology has wide appeal to enterprises, much smaller- scale implementation-such as by individual design teams-should reap similar benefits. As the technology continues to evolve, manufacturing companies in a wide variety of industries will no doubt incorporate the empirical benefits of IPS into their communication infrastructure, product-development plans, and information management systems.

With the animation capabilities of IPS software, engineers can generate videos that show maintenance staff how to disassemble and service products and systems, then put them back together again.

Grahic Jump LocationWith the animation capabilities of IPS software, engineers can generate videos that show maintenance staff how to disassemble and service products and systems, then put them back together again.

Copyright © 1998 by ASME
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