Walking among digital designs saves U.S. Army researchers many manufacturing steps.
By Jean Thilmany
By getting up close and personal with their digital prototypes, U.S. Army engineers have stepped up Six Sigma implementation and virtually done away with the need for hardware prototypes, saving millions of dollars in the process.
Design engineers at the U.S. Army’s Armament Research Development and Engineering Center—Rock Island have developed a design method that relies on visualization and virtual-reality technology to immerse engineers in the design of U.S. military vehicles.
The new method, dubbed the advanced visualization process, or AVP, has delivered significant cost and time savings to boot, to the tune of up to $4.4 million and 3.8 years as compared to the same project completed without AVP.
That process, which moves designs from concept to finished product without hardware prototyping, calls upon a systems engineering method based on Lean Six Sigma principles, said Joe Kleiss, a Navy veteran and project manager for the Armament Research and Development Engineering Center, or ARDEC, in Rock Island, Ill.
Kleiss began AVP in June 2005. He had received training in Six Sigma principles; then he had a light-bulb moment: Six Sigma and computer visualization technologies could be a natural fit. Via the technology, AVP brings together all design disciplines, decision makers, and end-users early in the design process, he said.
“The ability to see digital prototypes early on and modify them iteratively provides a way for each of these groups to contribute to the end system design from the very beginning of a project,” Kleiss said.
One big element of the AVP is the Immersive Engineering Laboratory, which uses a CAVE, a room-size virtual reality system in which users can interact, hands-on, with three-dimensional digital prototypes of systems.
In accordance with Six Sigma principles, designs now start at ARDEC with what’s called the voice-of-the-customer interviews, in which a project team interviews the soldiers and marines who will be the actual end-users, Kleiss said.
“With this input, the engineering team conducts a brainstorming and affinity exercise to define the parameters of a computer model that can be brought into the Immersive Engineering Lab for interactive design review,” he said. “Through several iterations, we can progress a design right through technical evaluation and contract award without building any hardware prototypes.”
After a customer signs off on a prototype, the CAD images can be directly output from the CAVE system to contract documents, Kleiss said.
The first visualization system at the laboratory was a wall display. While it presented designs in great detail, the flat-screen images didn’t allow engineers to truly immerse themselves in the design to determine how the vehicles would function in the real world, Kleiss said.
“There is a huge difference between immersive stereo and large, flat-panel display of designs,” Kleiss said. “The 360-degree field of view and ability to walk around a full-scale design creates an authentic perspective. In one example, a company that we hosted demonstrations for was able to immediately see interferences in a design model.”
The CAVE system now in use is from Mechdyne Corp. of Marshalltown, Iowa. The center is using it to display prototypes generated from Pro/Engineer CAD software from PTC of Waltham, Mass.
Kleiss and coworkers had the chance to try out the advanced visualization process when the U.S. Marines asked ARDEC to design a transportable tool carrier, which can carry tools needed for vehicle and equipment maintenance in the field.
The Marines needed something they could roll onto a vehicle for transport and roll around a field operation as needed. It also had to be built within the size and shape of a standard container. The requirements were consistent with the Marine Corps’s basic mission of fast deployment.
The timeline for such a project before development of the AVP was estimated at 4.5 years, including the building of multiple hardware prototypes, Kleiss said. But by using the new process, the project moved from customer interviews to initial delivery in just one and three-fourths years.
ARDEC almost immediately paid for the about $500,000 investment in the CAVE environment by eliminating the hardware prototypes, he added.
Subsequent designs for a family of transportable tool carriers were fully modeled in the immersive environment. This provided the capability to evaluate human factors and design usability long before any metal was cut, Kleiss said.
Engineers also use the immersive laboratory to speed decision making on projects designed by the AVP method.
For example, they reviewed a gunner protection kit, which would be retrofitted to combat vehicles to protect roof-mounted guns. In the lab, engineers could clearly see that a hatchway opening would obstruct a pair of heavy, bullet-resistant windows included in the initial design. Eliminating the windows reduced vehicle weight, an important consideration for the project manager, without posing undue risk to the soldier, Kleiss added.
ARDEC is also looking into using its immersive environment to move beyond design simulations. Scientists could, for example, use the CAVE to model and simulate combustion that takes place in normally closed environments, such as engines, he said.
The research and development center also makes its immersive laboratory available to other government customers and to private industry partners. In a current project, the Army Corps of Engineers is modeling a new pumping station for New Orleans flood control. Also, Caterpillar Inc. has reviewed models of new engines designed to comply with toughened emission standards, Kleiss said.