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With the complexity of product development today, there is a growing need for tools that speed up the design process, allowing a single engineer to work more productively than ever before.

We’ve already talked about how product simulation, enabled by rapid prototyping and 3D printing, may shortly revolutionize the design-to-manufacturing pipeline. But there’s a simultaneous revolution on the way and it’s powered by hardware that is available right now. Virtual reality is coming to product design and it’s already making strides towards blowing other simulation techniques out of the water.

VR in an Engineering Environment

The first thing to know about VR is that it’s a bit further along the adoption curve than 3D printing. The price of 3D printers has dropped (and their adoption has skyrocketed), but an industrial 3D printer can still cost up to half a million dollars. High-end consumer versions now cost around $2000. Meanwhile, the top of the line VR headsets come in under $800. As of this writing, Microsoft has also just announced a headset that undercuts this price by $500. The point is, companies are going to identify virtual reality as an extremely low-cost entry point to product simulation.

The second thing to know about VR is that the technology lives up to the promises it’s been making. This is not the Virtual Boy all over again. Here’s some proof: If you’re a sci-fi aficionado, you’ve probably read the work of William Gibson (Neuromancer). He’s been predicting the rise of virtual reality since the 1980s. Last year, he was shown an example of current-generation VR technology. His response? They did it.” In other words, this technology is ready for prime-time.

Simulating Products in Virtual Reality

Given the level of real-world readiness demonstrated by virtual reality, it should come as no surprise that major manufacturers such as Ford, Bentley, and BAE systems are all using VR as a design aid. There are a number of extremely convincing use-cases.

  • Blueprints and CAD drawings are flat, but products are 3D. Virtual reality allows manufacturers to do a virtual fly-through of a product blueprint and find potential conflicts or design errors.
  • Using laser scanners, it’s possible to create a photorealistic 3D object in a virtual space. Geographically separated design teams can instantly view 3D scans of design prototypes in VR, without having to travel, wait for shipping, or rely on photographs.
  • See the impact of design changes without having to build a new physical prototype.

As time goes on, users will even be able to use advanced CAD software to create and edit 3D models directly in virtual space, as opposed to editing models on a desktop and then exporting them into a VR environment. Better still, they’ll be able to place the product into a virtual manufacturing environment in order to simulate its own creation.

Product simulation doesn’t work in a vacuum, of course. With products becoming ever more complex, any simulation platform must be tailored to the manufacturing environment that the OEM has available to work with. Companies that do this well will be the ones who endure the ongoing future shock and thrive during the next industrial revolution. To learn more, check out our report “Maximizing Product Design in a Complex Manufacturing Environment.”

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