Digital designs, physical products

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:
I agree with your view, and you have laid out the fundamental differences between the big three of ...

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Our cover this month investigates the uptake of virtual reality in the engineering industry and asks if goggles and gloves are more than just a passing gimmick. My gut feeling is this technology is still finding its feet in terms of application, and still too niche for the mainstream. That, however, won't last much longer - and we are teetering on the edge of much wider uptake. So why is VR going to be massive?

One of the biggest collateral losers in the rush to take manufacture to low labour cost countries was the design engineer. As a young engineer, myself, working in the space industry, I found it invaluable to go down to a manufacturing hall to see how my CAD model turns into something physical. Inevitably, I would be told by an experienced hand that my design was a nightmare to manufacture and that ‘in theory’, ‘on paper’, and ‘on screen’, does not mean that in practice it is the best design... or even a good one. Invaluable lessons learnt.

I’ve spoken to so many over the years that recall bad experiences with the Far East; that don’t see an end product until it is shipped back to the UK six months later. Then, they see compromise, poor build quality and even deviation from a drawing. But, what do you expect? The factory was probably trying to meet the exceptionally low unit cost they promised and have had to compromise certain aspects to make the physical product. The problem is the dialogue has been lost and compromise made without discussion. Neither engineer or manufacturer fully understands the other, ignoring the importance of a certain fillet or the limitations of a particular machine.

VR has the potential to allow the sorts of collaboration that makes design engineers rounded. To not only talk with colleagues in any location as if they are in front of you, but to walk through the manufacturing process, to visualise designs with production colleagues and be told, like I was, that ‘this, here, will be a problem’.

VR will do for design, what the mobile phone has done for communication. It will allow different skill sets to collaborate so all parties are fully aware of the physical limitations of their digital design decisions.

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I agree with your view, and you have laid out the fundamental differences between the big three of concepts, technologies and engineering realities. The related problems arise just as often in the building business (my trade) as it does in the space industry. We understood the reasons for the Challenger disaster perfectly, where the theoreticians simply boggled. Success depends on complete understanding and links, both ways, between theorists and makers, and VR used with minimal "contractual" restraints can but improve matters. In building BIM heavy footed as it is, does go someway towards making the links and 3D VR models of e.g. plant spaces are becoming common.

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