Automotive and aerospace engineers have grown accustomed to examining virtual prototypes on 3D displays, but even the largest monitors display a small representation of a car or plane. However, software vendors are now offering cost effective solutions that let them see full-sized models in real time.
German software and services provider Real Time Technology AG of Munich is marketing a package that links several monitors together seamlessly, giving engineers a life-sized view. While this has been possible for years, it's now feasible to build a PC-based system for around $100,000, roughly a quarter the cost of proprietary systems used in recent years.
While most teams will link together flat panel displays, Ludwig Fuchs, a co-founder of RTT AG, notes that a truck manufacturer is linking 16 projection systems together to create a screen large enough to model a large truck in actual size. "There's a huge improvement with respect to realism, how a vehicle is represented so engineers and marketers can discuss it and make decisions," he adds.
He contends that advances in graphic processing chips have outpaced Moore's Law. "There have been enormous advances in graphics chips. The improvements are far more impressive than what we've seen in microprocessors," says Fuchs. RTT works closely with nVidia Corp. the Santa Clara, CA, graphic processor supplier.
This change brings large displays to engineering departments rather than limiting usage to trade show floors and major corporate meetings. Auto designers can examine a full car, rotating it and looking at both the interior and exterior at once. Aircraft designers can walk through a large plane like the Airbus A380 and have a realistic, life-sized view.
The ability to synchronize several systems also makes it possible to tie international teams together, letting them all work on a single image. "With globalization, this can be used to join development teams around the world, letting them have joint discussions while seeing changes in real time no matter where they're located," Fuchs says.
Engineers and marketers can interact with the models, make annotations, and alter the virtual prototype, with everyone seeing the same alterations. This type of collaboration has been discussed for years, but it's only been in the past year or so that market acceptance has really begun, he adds.
While the large integrated graphics are being used primarily by teams designing large equipment, this form of collaborative engineering is being used by companies designing shoes, cell phones and other products.
There are some global design teams that merge both RTT technologies, with engineers in many geographic locations working together on models displayed on large multi-screen displays.
While he's bullish on the prospects of virtual modeling, Fuchs doesn't think it will replace actual physical prototypes. "There's not antagonism between the real world and virtual world. The best approach is to combine the strengths of both methods," he says. He notes that haptics and ergonomics are best realized with physical prototypes, while material variants can easily be visualized on computer screens.