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Reducing Time-to-market and development costs: virtual reality to help manufacturers

The prototyping phase, inevitable during product development, is costly and time-consuming.

Virtual reality is helping manufacturers with the emergence of the Virtual Assembly Design Environment.

The prototyping phase is a critical step in the development of a product. It makes it possible to validate the "life-size" product, both from a technical (functional, manufacturability) and aesthetic point of view.

Today, making a product is a succession of design - prototyping - test cycles: the product is designed, prototyped, tested and then modified, and so on until a product is obtained in accordance with the specifications. This method has two major disadvantages: cost and time.

Take the example of an aluminum part: it usually takes between 10 and 16 weeks to obtain prototypes from a supplier, and the price of prototyped parts is 3 to 15 times higher than their serial life cost. In addition, design changes, which are rarely avoidable, lead to new prototype orders, increasing development costs and time to market.

Manufacturers then tend to try to limit (in budget and time) this prototyping phase, whereas, on the contrary, to optimize design and create products designed precisely as needed, this prototyping phase should be extended.

How can this step be made shorter and less costly?

Rapid prototyping, through additive manufacturing, is a first step towards reducing development costs and lead times.

To gain more competitiveness, it is now possible to digitize this development stage. Thanks to the latest advances in Virtual Reality (VR), engineers can assemble products in a virtual environment compatible with current CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software. The industry is freeing itself from "physical" prototypes and associated constraints such as long lead times and high manufacturing costs for parts. Development teams can assemble prototypes at their leisure, test many technical solutions very quickly, and widely optimize the design. In short, this makes the development phase much more agile and accelerate time-to-market.

This technology, made possible by developments in VR and computer computing power, is called the Virtual Assembly Design Environment (VADE).

Under study since 1995 in the United States (notably at the Washington State University), Virtual Assembly Design Environment seems to be a promising technology to reduce development costs and time-to-market.

How does it work?

The virtual environment consists of hardware (virtual reality mask with high quality graphics, devices to track the movements of the person's head and hands, special gloves to follow the movement of fingers and wrists providing haptic feedback simulating touch) and virtual reality software, allowing the engineer to be completely immersed.

The virtual environment is also directly linked to the designers' CAD software, which makes it possible to accurately model the 3D volumes of each part in order to identify possible collisions during assembly. Thanks to the direct link, part parameters can also be changed in real time to, for example, correct tolerances.

Development costs and time-to-market are then strongly limited by the reduction in the number of prototypes ordered (even if a physical prototype will still validate the product).

Application cases? Unlimited. Regardless of the industry, the optimization of prototyping phases is a major challenge.

This technology is now emerging among the world's leading manufacturers, such as BMW, which has integrated VADE into its product development. Ford also uses this technology to simulate the assembly of prototypes to optimize the ergonomics and assembly speed of its products.

Not only can it be used as a design optimization tool, the VADE can also be a great training tool for product or sub-assembly assembly (new entrants, subcontractors, new products, etc.).

A new asset for industry 4.0?

Article written by Clément Dilé, Consultant.

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