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Virtual Reality Factory Model for Manufacturing Innovation

By Mechdyne Corp.

The Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM), Prince George County, Va., brings together industry, academia, and government to solve advanced manufacturing challenges. The not-for-profit center for manufacturing R&D includes 35 members from organizations such as Siemens, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and NASA Langley Research Center, as well the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

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The immersive 3D model of a virtual factory is displayed on a Mechdyne Powerwall at the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM).

A unique Powerwall from Mechdyne Corp., Marshalltown, Iowa, helps CCAM serve its mission with the capability to visualize the factory of the future, including dataflows and processes. The large-scale immersive virtual reality (VR) display system serves as an intuitive interface for teamwork among CCAM’s academic, government, and industry ecosystem.

That fits CCAM’s goal, which is to provide a collaborative environment for development of innovative manufacturing processes and technologies and to grow a qualified manufacturing workforce with an industry-driven educational pathway. To do this, it provides an environment where members can work together to develop solutions, particularly for industry-sponsored, government-funded academic research programs with the goal of making technology useful to meet real world requirements.

With a strong background in both industry and academia, CCAM’s researchers come from schools such as Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Michigan and Stanford University, and from corporations including John Deere, General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Newport News Shipbuilding.

CCAM researchers solve complex manufacturing challenges in a range of research focus areas, including adaptive automation, additive manufacturing, machining technologies, and surface engineering. Ongoing projects include testing ways to integrate autonomous robots into the digital factory of the future for remote monitoring and tool transport.

Will Powers, CCAM’s president and CEO, said that the center has a focus on automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, which are essential to success for many of today’s manufacturing organizations. CCAM provides a digital factory of the future with programs for exploring best practices, developing processes, and solving today’s most complex manufacturing challenges.

This immersive 3D model of a virtual factory lets researchers visualize real-time data, motion, and status of robots, machines and other highly advanced equipment. As experts in converting 3D models into virtual reality applications, the Mechdyne engineering team helped CCAM port its digital factory into the Powerwall immersive display system.

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A VR system is ideal for analyzing and understanding modern factories and those of the future that will adapt, driven by data and analytics.

“Automation and artificial intelligence are where modern manufacturing is headed,” said Powers, the former CFO for aircraft engine maker Rolls-Royce North America. He has led CCAM since 2016. “The Mechdyne Powerwall is an important resource that helps our researchers and members share unique perspectives and better understand the systems and processes under development.”

The Powerwall, also known by Mechdyne as a Bench, is a VR display system that projects 3D visualizations on an 8' x 14' (2.4 m x 4.3 m) wall and onto the floor in front of it. Users wear lightweight shutter glasses that also track motion for a full virtual reality experience of the CCAM building, its equipment, robotics and data sources. The floor projection creates a more immersive sense of presence for researchers and engineers “standing” in the virtual factory or examining a prototype machine or assembly design.

The team used the Unity software platform, a popular game engine, which provided powerful tools to import CAD models and create dynamic, interactive virtual representations of parts, assemblies and the entire facility. Mechdyne’s getReal3D for Unity is a commercially available plug-in that enables Unity software to display in large, interactive VR displays.

The VR system lends itself to interactive training, exploration and analysis of data, all of which are important to CCAM. The organization envisions using the Powerwall for cybersecurity informatics and visualizing corporate networks of nodes, switches, routers, firewalls and the flow of data. With an immersed perspective of network and data ontology, it is expected that the Powerwall will help identify security risks and expose the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) that are known to plague today’s manufacturing facilities, preventing catastrophic breaches.

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With the Powerwall, CCAM researchers and members can more easily share concepts and discoveries.

Next-generation intelligent factories are controlled by rich data sources that support advanced analytics, machine learning, and adaptive automation. They require automation systems that are contextually aware and can adapt to variability in parts, processes, environments and people.

Intelligent factories derive their power from the interconnectivity of computers, machinery, autonomous vehicles, advanced sensor technology, and robotics. The complexity of these interactions can be difficult to conceptualize and make true collaboration challenging. With the Powerwall, CCAM researchers and members can more easily share concepts and discoveries that are only possible to understand through large-scale immersive data visualization.

“Visualizing factory dataflow is one of our biggest challenges,” said Matt Stremler, CCAM’s director of research. “Thanks to Mechdyne, we are one of the only facilities today with a virtual reality factory model where we can work interactively with machine connectivity and the information passing between equipment and controlling processes.”

Stremler said that CCAM is doing groundbreaking work using large-scale immersive visualization to examine processes and performance in real time based on a 3D model of the plant layout. In the future they expect to use the VR system to examine dataflows for cybersecurity and the Powerwall can also be used for real time remote operation of robotics in harsh or inaccessible environments.

For more information from Mechdyne Corp., go to www.mechdyne.com or phone 641-754-4649. For more information from CCAM, go to wp2.ccam-va.com or phone 804-722-3700.

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