Meeting the challenges of virtual design

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:

They say hindsight is a wonderful thing. This is certainly true of design and engineering. Despite trying to predict how products will be used and testing against those conditions, it is impossible to foresee how everyone will use and treat them in the real world. That means performance is not always as predicted and, in the worst instances, something unexpectedly fails.

While post analysis might reveal the reasons for any failure as obvious, it is nearly impossible to test against thousands of real world uses and environments at the front end – at least without incurring significant cost.

Like many engineering firms, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) is facing extremely tough challenges going forward. Essentially, these can be categorised as: 'provide more for less more quickly'. On the one hand, JLR is expected to routinely produce better cars with more functionality and all-round capability. However, this is at odds with the other driver of reducing time to market, lowering production costs and meeting stringent European regulations on emissions. It is being asked to move in all directions at once. Clearly, this is not physically possible. However, it might be possible virtually.

As a brand, Land Rover has a wide operating envelope, from being used as a comfortable luxury vehicle to being a highly capable off-road. This generates some 9,000 individual requirements, which in turn generates the need for 30,000 tests.

Mark Stanton, vehicle engineering director at JLR, says: "I can't control all the 'noise' factors in the real world when I'm doing a test. Every time you drive a car on a dirt road you will change the road surface by driving on it, so the next time you go down it doing exactly the same speed, in exactly the same place, it will give different results."

Virtual testing allows much better control of noise factors, which can be analysed over thousands of different operating and climatic conditions. These factors can be controlled, added and removed with ease – which helps get to 'right first time' designs.

The ideal would potentially involve zero physical prototypes of vehicles. Engineers would be so confident in the virtual vehicle that they could start full production and use the first vehicles off the production line for the necessary certification and testing. Though this is some way off yet (especially for the automotive industry), there is progress.

"We are doing more tuning work in the software, but we still have to tune the physical vehicle," says Stanton. "However, by doing it virtually first we are much closer to that final sign off when we get in to the physical world. And that saves time and money.

"Many engineers talk about the need to do a test on a certain component, but in the virtual world we can do thousands of tests around that one particular part and look at all the factors. That gets a much more robust design when we come to build it physically for the first time. We can simulate, for example, all the use cases in the 178 countries we sell in. We couldn't possibly go to all these countries for tests."

JLR is seeking to unlock more of the potential from the virtual world to use in its design process. This was highlighted last month as JLR announced it will lead a five-year £10 million research programme in conjunction with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and four leading universities to develop the UK's virtual engineering capability.

The programme will be made up of a number of projects to form part of the Programme for Simulation Innovation (PSI). JLR describes this next generation of interactive simulation and design capability as virtual realisation, and it is hoped the programme will help JLR and the wider engineering community to exploit the technology.

JLR is already a keen user of virtual design environments and is known for its 'Cave', a large, wall-sized curved screen that is used to view CAD models with tracked 3D glasses. However, a major part of this programme centres on providing improved realisation to CAD and simulation data.

For example, instead of running a simulation of a new suspension set up on screen, engineers could perhaps instead upload data to a driving simulator and take a car for a realistic test drive. They would be able to see how the new design performs, to see how it affects handling, cornering, the ride, and all sorts of other attributes.

"They can look for and try to find the issues that would only normally show up in the physical testing of a vehicle," says Stanton. "You can feel how it drives down the road, simulate the sound produced across a bonnet and front wing to hear the noise produced by the engine, wind and road. Before we build a car, we can drive it, hear what it sounds like and feel how it handles."

It is early days but virtual tools are increasingly being used in real applications. Augmented reality, the use of haptics and numerous other interfacing tools are coming to market that are better able to immerse users in to an interactive virtual world. The results are eerily realistic in the way they convince the senses that a virtual environment is real.

London-based Inition specialises in developing bespoke real-time 3D graphic applications to create interactive experiences. It recently opened its studio to the public to show just what is possible when it comes to augmented and virtual reality.

"Augmented reality really started as a marketing gimmick," says Jonathan Tustain, communications manager at Inition. "But, it is a really good way of presenting information and designs. Before you would always have glitches, bits would disappear and it was not reliable enough. However, as iPads have become more advanced, you can do some really high-quality graphics."

Indeed, this could become a useful viewing tool for engineers. By looking through the screen of a tablet, a computer-generated image is superimposed on whatever the camera is looking at. Ford has used it to allow people to see how its EcoFlow engine works, while JLR has used it for internal presentations. Done well, it allows people to get up close to designs and strip away or isolate certain parts like the engine, powertrain or suspension.

However, the greatest area of interest for a design engineer is being in a virtual environment that is so realistic that they are able to develop and test products as if they were real. This is a major area of interest for Inition going forward.

"One of things we are looking at with virtual reality is ways of simulating the senses" says Tustain. "We are looking at gloves that have individual bubbles on the fingers that compress to make it feel like you are touching objects. However, this kind of technology is still a way off."

Trigger reactions
A major part of PSI looks to assess and find out if there are mechanisms that will make people interact with a simulated situation as if it were real. Indeed, it might be that the user knows a situation is not real, but the simulation will trigger the same interaction and reaction as it would in the real world.

Professor Alan Chalmers from the Warwick Manufacturing Group is a principal investigator on one of the projects that make up the programme. He says: "We want to improve the level of realism so we can make confident decisions about how something will behave in reality. Once you understand it, you can apply it to all manner of designs.

"We want the decision you make in a virtual environment to be exactly the same as the one you make in the real environment as you have all the same multisensory information."
A vital part of the programme is looking at the human factors involved and the behaviours generated between a person and the environment. It is hoped that by better understanding this aspect of virtual engineering, it will improve confidence in the decisions made in virtual simulations as they will closely correlate with the real world.

Dr Hamish Jamson from the University of Leeds is carrying out work to assess driving simulators as part of PSI. He says: "It is a huge challenge getting everything in a full interactive simulation. And to be able to simulate the complete complexity of the real world is really an unachievable goal.

"So, how much of the prototyping and testing can we do virtually? How much can we do with human and machine interface developments, vision design and those kinds of aspects, and how much driving simulation can we do? One of the reasons that interactive driving simulations are such a challenge is because, as humans, we are really good at perceiving things. There are an awful lot of perceptual cues that we need to create in simulators to convince the brain it is a realistic environment."

Part of Dr Jamson's work will involve finding out the limits of the technology and advising JLR on how much prototyping and development can be achieved virtually. This is in addition to providing an insight in to what the certain triggers are for real world behaviours and reactions.

"We want to model perceptions, understand why drivers make certain decisions, and begin to model that process," he says. "Not just the visual, but also motion systems such as haptics and the cues that drivers use to create the manoeuvres that they do."

Augmented reality
Augmented reality uses smartphones or tablets to overlay computer generated imagery (CGI) in real-time on a real background. An example where this might be used in the engineering world is looking at a drawing, sketch or concept design on paper. By looking through a tablet, for example, the image would come to life and a CAD model would appear on screen that tracks the movements of the user as they walk and look around it.

Jonathan Tustain, communications manager at bespoke 3D graphic specialists Inition explains how it works: "There are very small points on the floor mats which act as markers that an iPad will pick up. The rest of the pattern has to be completely randomised, which is why they look the way they do."

It is gathering momentum among architects that are using it to show future developments. It can show airflow around buildings, shadows at different times of day, internal systems, local traffic, and you can even go in to each room and see what the view will be like. This has proved a powerful marketing tool and the same sorts of applications could no doubt be done with engineering firms.


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