September 4, 2014
AGCO engineers don’t have to rely solely on the traditional product development process any longer. They have implemented a new virtual reality system that enables engineers to correct design flaws without having to build multiple prototypes. Now the tool is being used to build the company’s first generation of global agricultural equipment.
Forgive Joseph Black if he sounds energized when talking about the new design tool being used at AGCO’s engineering facilities in Jackson, Minn. Not everyone gets to work in a virtual world.
For a year now engineers have watched their 3-D models come to life in realistic assemblies that they can see right before them. With the help of this state-of-the-art visualization technology, engineers can lift up the hood on a tractor, enter the cab of a combine, or simply observe an exterior design tweak to a sprayer—all without the need for commissioning a prototype.
That compression of the product design cycle might be enough to get any engineer or company manager excited, but this tool itself is generating enthusiasm from the engineering staff. It’s a new dimension in 3-D modeling.
“If you go to see a 3-D movie in an IMAX theater, that’s what we are getting into now,” said Black, a senior business analyst, engineering applications, AGCO.
While the visualization technology might appear to be bleeding-edge, it has been used in the aerospace, automotive, and even agricultural space for the past several years. AGCO began to seek such a tool about three years ago, according to Black, but momentum really picked up when its European sister manufacturing facilities invested in the technology.
Engineers in France were the first to purchase a virtual reality system, and they went with an “immersive” type that requires the users to wear helmets. They are completely engulfed in the 3-D environment, but are somewhat cut off from other participants who may be a part of the virtual experience.
Engineers in Germany went another route. The Fendt Research and Development facility in Germany installed a “powerwall,” where a person with a wand-type device controls the visualization and movement of the model, which is projected onto an 8- by 16-foot glass screen. 3-D glasses, which contain tracking probes attuned to the lead presenter’s movements, allow others to follow the model through the eyes of the model manipulator. As he or she moves around the model, the wearers of the 3-D glasses can see the model from the very same angle.
Black said AGCO engineers in the U.S. liked the German setup and decided to pursue that alternative for the Jackson installation (see Figure 1). They chose the Christie D4K35 projectors, which were running at 30 Hz in Germany.
Christie, which has customers in industries ranging from the government to entertainment, handled the system design and installation. It installed two of its D4K3560 DLP® 4K projectors running at 60 Hz, which delivered a much crisper image than the projectors in Germany. TechViz XL software enabled the display of virtual prototypes in real time without the need for processing gaps related to data conversion.
From the start, Black said the engineering staff immediately began discovering design flaws that previously would have been caught only after a physical prototype was made.
“Probably the quickest thing that we have discovered is interferences right away,” he said. “For example, it’s easy to see that you ran a cross member into the frame.”
He admitted that it won’t eliminate the need for prototypes, but it may cut down on the number of them.
“Sometimes you need a little more realistic look at it, which usually is a physical prototype,” Black said. “But virtual reality takes you almost to that equal level. It gets you a lot closer than the old 3-D CAD model might.”
The virtualization technology also has been used to increase collaboration among AGCO service segments. Now when design reviews take place, representatives from purchasing, manufacturing, and marketing participate. Everyone gets to see the latest design and offer feedback.
Marketing even went so far as to use the virtual reality environment to showcase new products at a customer event in Denver. Black said it was a scramble to find a vendor to pull together a portable version of what was being used in the engineering facilities, but they were able to do it. Farmers and equipment dealers had the opportunity to see what was coming in terms of new products, even if that equipment wasn’t available for physical interaction.
Black said that the engineers were still “raw” when it came to figuring out what they could do with the virtual reality tool. They have added a helmet feature that provides the immersive environment that their colleagues in France had, and they are starting to test fingertip controls that will allow the user to simulate reaching for a switch or pushing a button within the 3-D model.
“We haven’t learned the true benefits everywhere,” he said. “I’m sure that there are a lot of things that we can catch as we bring in more downstream people.”
AGCO did just that recently when about 20 people from the company’s international facilities visited Jackson to look at the latest designs for a new combine and sprayer, both of which will be two of the first products to be launched for global consumption, not just equipment tailored for a particular country or region. Representatives from Europe and South America were there to prove out the production process for one of the new products—in a virtual environment.
Product design has definitely changed since Black started his engineering career more than 30 years ago, but new realities—even the virtual kind—have a way of keeping engineers energized for the job.
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