Students at the University of Missouri-Rolla are learning in a unique way how design influences manufacturing.
Using virtual reality, they are programming, controlling, and monitoring machines in both the real world and in a 'virtual reality' mode on their PC screens. The new learning environment is an educational prototype opening up opportunities for teaching tomorrow's engineers.
"Seamlessly streamlining all the design and manufacturing functions is essential for survival in today's dynamic marketplace," says Dr. Can Saygin, the Integrated Systems Facility Director in the school's Engineering Management department. He put together a seminar that integrates real world machine control with virtual reality in a learning environment for manufacturing engineering. The environment includes not only the production operations, but also the design activities. The seminar, Real and Virtual Learning Environments for Integrated Manufacturing and Automation, is organized in cooperation with FESTO Didactic (Hauppaquge, NY).
"Virtual reality tools facilitate rapid prototyping and reduce the product development lead time," Saygin says. "They reduce development cost and minimize any potential design flaws that otherwise would not be noticed at the early design stages."
Saygin also contends that virtual reality tools provide a unique opportunity for manufacturing capability enhancement, when used in connection with simulation tools. "Companies can not only verify their scheduling and control policies, but they can also try different 'what if' scenarios via virtual reality and simulation tools in a very short time without actually changing anything on their shop floor."
While some courses teach computer-controlled machining and other pieces of the design and manufacturing process, Saygin claims his seminar is unique: "We're trying to integrate the whole manufacturing system with the 'see-the-big-picture' approach to teach design, planning, scheduling, control, and other automated manufacturing systems issues."
The University of Missouri's design and modeling lab includes various product and system design, planning, scheduling, and simulation/animation tools, such as AutoCAD, MasterCAM, ProModel, Lingo/Lindo, RSLogix, Wonderware, and COSIMIR. All the software packages are directed towards applications within manufacturing systems control. "Within our integrated systems concept, we try to integrate the different functions in the life cycle of a product into a unified environment in which the islands of automation are reduced as much as possible," says Saygin.
Because web-based manufacturing re-moves all constraints regarding the geographical location, operations are effectively managed in real-time.
"The pressures in the marketplace towards shorter lead times, higher quality levels, highly customized products, and lower costs require cutting all non-value adding activities within enterprises and supply-chains," says Saygin. "From this standpoint, the Internet technologies provide a unique opportunity to get the job done in a shorter time."
The idea for the seminar came in June, when Johannes Schlaghecke, an engineer and the general manager of FESTO Didactic USA, visited Saygin in Missouri. During that visit, they outlined various ideas for cooperation, and soon formulated a 12-month project framework.
"Even with all the technologies described, the teaching and learning processes remain like in-classroom situations," says Schlaghecke. "But now, imagine that within a virtual factory on your PC you can cut a subsystem, a machine tool for example, rebuild this virtual subsystem with real hardware equipment, and then connect the hardware system to the virtual factory and have everything running again."
The interface that allows this hardware-in-the-loop scenario is called Hyperbond. This interface was developed within the European Research Project DERIVE—Distributed Real and Virtual Learning Environment for Mechatronics and Tele-Service. Festo Didactic is a consortium member in this research project and will market new learning concepts based on Hyperbond.
Hyperbond uses what Schlaghecke calls "Twin Objects." He explains: "One physically existing component and its virtual counterpart interface the real environment and virtual reality." What makes it different from other approaches of integrating real world and virtual reality is its capability to interactively connect two learning methods: "hands on training" and "training by PC-simulation."
"You can't do design without software now," says Schlaghecke emphatically. "The interactive nature of the virtual reality seminar also enables students to learn to use that software just like they'll be expected to in the real world."