Growing up, one of my friend’s parents was a structural engineer. I can still remember him laboring away at his desk, measuring and calculating any number of design options to determine which was the safest. When CAD was developed, it felt like a God-send. None of us would have guessed the industry could get more advanced than that.
Fast forward 20 years, and I now have friends whose kids are using CAD to develop models in elementary school robotics programs. As surprising as it may be, the shock and awe that once belonged to CAD has moved on to a new tech player: virtual reality (VR).
For many of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear VR is gaming. But VR is fast becoming an increasingly important—and normal—part of everyday design in a variety of industries, from engineering to avionics. A recent survey by PwC found that one-third of US manufacturers are already using VR in some capacity—and I’m guessing that number will grow quickly in the next few years. Product development labs at the most innovative companies are utilizing VR, augmented reality, and 3-D printing to build and test products before they ever become part of the physical world. Indeed, simulation is fast becoming a critical part of efficient manufacturing and design. The following are just a few ways VR has already found a home in product development.
Viewing Blueprints and CAD Designs in 3-D
Say you need to buy a new car. Would you rather see a picture of the car on your computer screen—or see it in 3-D—before committing to the purchase? As I noted above, VR is blowing CAD out of the water—or at least out of the computer screen—by allowing design engineers to see their mock-ups in 3-D, rather than on a digital or printed page. The change is important both for designer and customer, as it allows the engineer to find potential issues before physical construction is ever undertaken. It also allows the customer to offer feedback and avoid any potential miscommunication before the product or building is finalized. Imagine how much wasted money and resources will be avoided simply by creating the potential for 3-D design.
Building 3-D Parts in Smaller Scale
There’s nothing like a model to help communicate your vision to customers or business partners. But for decades, the cost of creating a scaled model was cost-prohibitive. Many in the design phase needed to rely on sketches alone to convince someone to make an investment or design change in the product. No more. Using increasingly affordable types of 3-D printing, engineers and other designers can easily output their design—and test it—to make it even better.
Creating a 3-D Rendering in Virtual Space
I remember when I first heard about realtors and construction companies using virtual models of their properties to sell to potential clients. All of the sudden, their customer pool was not limited to their local geographical area—it was open to anyone, anywhere in the world. Such is the beauty of VR. This world of “virtual showrooming” means that manufacturers of cars, boats, buildings, and even model homes no longer need to have those products in stock for potential customers to experience them. The savings in resources, space, storage—you name it—are nearly endless.
Testing and Improving Prototypes
Back in the day, designers had to test one part at a time before taking the chance that the full product would work well together. But to me, one of the best parts of simulation is that it allows designers to gain a holistic view of how their design will be impacted by any number of design changes, without ever committing to one of those parts being created. Which parts manufacturer’s pieces will fit the best? How will adding one design feature change the speed? Functionality? Those are all things designers can find out before the piece is ever built. That doesn’t just save time. It saves stress—product recalls—lawsuits—bad contracts. The list goes on and on.
Basically, simulation allows us to solve problems—and find even better alternatives—earlier in the development cycle so that better products can be pushed out to market faster than ever before. Rather than testing being the last phase of development and design, it’s a living, breathing part of the design process. The growth of digital twins will only enhance designers’ abilities to make safer, stronger, more advanced, longer-lasting products for the consumer market. It’s just one more example of the ways digital transformation is improving customer experience—and the best part is, the customers never have to physically “experience” anything until the best possible product is created.