Virtual Reality as an engineering tool

In times of shortened product life cycles and increased product complexity, more responsibility comes with designing a product. Research shows that about 80% of development costs and 70% of life cycle costs of a product are determined during the conceptual phase of this process. This has led to the development of Computer Aided Design (CAD) systems that enable the designer to evaluate the geometry of his virtual design. At this stage of the design process, modifications are still quite cheap, compared with changes to a physical prototype or, even worse, the final product.

Geometric based design has reached a high level of maturity and affordability. Many companies use it to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the design process. However, for evaluation of a design, the development of physical prototypes still is necessary. This can be a very much time-consuming and expensive process. Therefore, the designer should be able to define and test the desired behaviour of a forthcoming product in such a way that the corresponding geometry is created automatically by means of a CAD system. In order to come to this ideal situation, it should be made possible for the designer to interact with a virtual prototype as he would do with a physical one.

A Virtual Prototyping environment for gearboxes

The answer to more interactive CAD environments is found in the application of Virtual Reality (VR) technology. It allows for interaction with a virtual environment through multiple sensory channels. When VR technology is applied instead of or as a supplement to development of physical prototypes, it is called Virtual Prototyping (VP). This is the process of using a virtual prototype, in lieu of a physical prototype, for test and evaluation of specific characteristics of a candidate design. A virtual prototype can be defined as a computer-based simulation of a system or subsystem with a degree of functional realism comparable to a physical prototype.

A Virtual Assembly environment

A specific part of Virtual Prototyping is Virtual Assembly (VA). Usually, during the design process, the assembly of a conceptual product is already taken into account. Therefore, a detailed assembly procedure has to be developed without the actual components present. In order to track down the potentially critical operations and geometric conflicts during assembly, physical prototypes are employed. Those physical prototypes have a number of drawbacks, e.g. costly and time-consuming manufacturing, invariability in case of CAD model modifications and immovability caused by mass or extensions. A solution to these problems lies in the application of Virtual Assembly. By utilizing VR technology, various assembly operations can be simulated. This way, not only potentially critical operations and geometric conflicts during assembly can be detected, but also a training tool for shop floor workers is provided.