Virtual reality has become a commonplace engineering tool for major aerospace manufacturers, where three-dimensional visualization systems are routinely used to aid design reviews.

But further down the supply chain, simulation environments into which designers can immerse themselves to navigate a structure or walk a cabin are too expensive—and unnecessary if what the company produces fits on a desktop, or in the hand of an engineer.

Avionics manufacturer Rockwell Collins decided to develop its own low-cost 3-D visualization system, initially to perform virtually what previously was done physically: to visually inspect new hardware designs to assess their manufacturability.

The company's goal in developing the Virtual Product Model (VPM) was to find manufacturing problems earlier in the design cycle, when new avionics boxes are still on the computer screen and before expensive prototypes have been produced.

“3-D virtual reality has been used at the prime level for over a decade, and we recognize its power for communicating and understanding designs and the impact of designs,” says Jim Lorenz, manager of advanced industrial engineering. “Large-scale fully immersive systems are appropriate at the platform level, but at the box level, on a tabletop, their expense is outside what we could deal with.”

Rockwell Collins's solution was to find commercial software that could be tailored to provide a low-cost way to take product data from its computer-aided design (CAD) system, convert it to 3-D and put it into a virtual environment “without specialist skills or vast expense,” says Kevin Fischer, manager of manufacturing technology pursuits.

Using 3-D glasses and a motion-capture system, an engineer can manipulate the virtual model of an avionics box, inspecting it from all angles to make sure it can be manufactured in the factory or repaired in the field. Several people can view the 3-D model collaboratively during a design review, or it can be sent to individual engineers and viewed in 2-D format on desktop workstations.

“We take the CAD model into the VPM and put it in a format that does not need the software to run. We send an executable file, the engineers open it, inspect the model and determine what its manufacturability is by looking at it,” Fischer says.

The basic requirement is to perform virtually—via 3-D models–the manufacturability assessments previously conducted manually using physical prototypes. And “there are some unique things the system can do,” he says. These include an “augmented reality” mode that allows the user to change the 3-D model's scale “and go between the circuit cards to see things we can't catch physically.”

In augmented reality, the user's hand as represented in the virtual environment, its motion captured by cameras, can be varied in size from that of a large man to that of a small woman to help uncover potential accessibility problems.

The VPM system is now in day-to-day use with new designs. A “couple of hundred” designs have gone through the process and Rockwell Collins puts the return on its investment at 800% in terms of the number of hours required to fix manufacturability issues discovered virtually in the 3-D model versus physically in a hardware prototype.

Although the CAD data is reduced in resolution when it is converted to a 3-D model for visualization, “we have yet to run into a [manufacturability] problem [in the model] and there not turn out to be a correspondingly real problem [in the hardware],” says Lorenz.

Expanding the capability is next on the agenda. One direction is to take the now-manual assessment process and automate it by bringing in rules-based analysis software. “We are starting to think about how to take the capability to visually inspect a design and apply appropriate rules to get a level of automation where we find things we don't catch by manual inspection,” says Fischer.

Another direction is to pull more data into the visualization environment for use during design reviews, “information such as cost at the piece-part level, so we can see the implications of design decisions,” says Lorenz. “We are also doing some work at the conceptual design level. We would like to use VPM two or three times during the design cycle, but we are not there yet.”

The company also is looking at using VPM as a basis for developing 3-D work instructions for use on the factory floor, and for the technical documents used by field service representatives to troubleshoot problems. “Their key interest is getting down to the circuit-card level, while [in manufacturing] we work with boxes,” says Fischer.

Rockwell Collins also would like to expand the VPM beyond mechanical CAD data. “We want to do electrical, et cetera, in the same environment by pulling together various types of models,” says Fischer. “Anything you can do in PowerPoint, this can do better. But we need to beef up the electrical CAD side of the equation.”