Virtual and Augmented Reality in Manufacturing Simulation  

Technology to mimic reality has been around since the 1960s when bulky goggles produced stereoscopic 3D visual images. These devices were developed into a generally more usable product in the 1990s, and eventually evolved into compact gaming headsets. Today a lucrative virtual reality gaming market exists which also translates to the manufacturing workplace.

The greatest industrial impact of technology to generate virtual (near) reality and augmented (enhanced) reality is in manufacturing simulation, from parts and assembly to an entire shop floor layout.  For example, in the automotive industry Ford recently opened a new $45 million plant in America which exploits virtual reality.  Headsets are used to print three dimensional parts in a virtual environment as well as design production lines and simulate their operation.  In this way engineers are able to examine and optimise every aspect of the design in a virtual environment rather than build physical prototypes.

Augmented reality has also been applied to existing manufacturing processes in many industry sectors.  Three dimensional representations of actual machinery is overlaid with computer generated images to enable potential design improvements to be simulated and possible future problems to be identified rapidly.  Operational efficiency can consequently be increased and costs reduced.  And the simulation can be altered far more quickly and easily than would be possible for a physical model or prototype.

A virtual manufacturing environment can also be a substantial benefit in the planning of capital equipment purchases.  Simulations of how each new component will operate in its intended environment helps to identify the best equipment to purchase.  Software is now available that allows SMEs to conduct potential design improvements in a virtual environment, showing how changes can be made to line assemblies or shop floor layouts.

Virtual environments can demonstrate how to implement robot-aided tasks; even how most effectively to programme a robot by practising the techniques offline.  Companies such as Delmia and Visual Components offer a comprehensive range of manufacturing simulation solutions.  Opportunities also exist to commission a one-off simulation for a specific situation to satisfy a company’s particular requirements.

Manufacturing simulations and augmented reality programs also help training in the use of equipment.  Operators can be trained in the use of machinery, and factory configurations and production processes can be simulated so that potentially hazardous conditions can be identified and avoided.  Perhaps best of all, advanced simulation models allow users to collaborate in the virtual world without ever needing to leave their own physical location, thus eliminating geographical barriers, time zones and concomitant costs.

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