VR and SGW Designworks
SGW Designworks is a product development company with clients all over North America. As with many development companies, and R&D groups within businesses, they have adopted a philosophy of rapid development cycles, centered around frequent prototyping and fast iteration. This means constant utilization of technologies like 3D Modelling, 3D Printing, and recently, Virtual Reality.
SGW Designworks often develops large and complex equipment in addition to smaller products. Examples include locomotive subsystems, flight operations support equipment, and gym equipment. When developing these types of products, fast prototyping and iteration still have huge benefits. But developing physical prototypes can be very costly. The solution? Prototype these products in virtual reality, at least for the first few iterations.
Starting in SOLIDWORKS, the product design at SGW Designworks creates an initial conceptual model of the system envisioned. This initial model usually does not include full consideration for functionality or manufacture-ability but does communicate the design vision. This initial model may only take a few days to develop, but it actually serves as the first VR prototype. Using a tool from Simlab, the model is imported into Unity. Unity is the 3D engine behind many 3D applications, including the HTC Vive VR system that SGW Designworks chooses to use.
Typically, the SOLIDWORKS models do require specific manipulation prior to exporting, in order to work properly in VR. Once the model is live in the VR system, the VR prototype is ready to review with the client. The intent with the initial VR prototype is to get feedback from the client or even from people that will use the end product, about the general configuration.
One advantage VR has overviewing a 3D model on a large monitor is providing a sense of scale. In VR, the model is presented to the viewer in actual size. The user is able to actually walk around the model and interact with it. This is especially useful for reviews with people that are not accustomed to working in CAD. In VR, users can test the location of features. The size and scale of human interfaces like buttons, joysticks, or touch-screens can be tested in a way not possible on a 2D screen.
Using input from the initial VR prototype review, the SOLIDWORKS model is refined, and actual engineering starts. As the design progresses, changes are made balance functionality with production cost, and manufacturability. These changes can be reviewed by the client in near real-time, even in very large assemblies. The feedback loops become very fast.
In mid-phase development, serviceability concerns are often an important development focus. At this stage, it is not uncommon to see maintenance personnel laying on their backs on the floor of the SGW Designworks office, with the VR headset on. They are checking to see if the location of a service item, like an oil drain plug, is reasonably located or not. This is just one example of a critical design consideration that previously could not truly be tested until a physical prototype was produced.
SGW Designworks has found that when developing large, complex products, VR prototyping can eliminate the need for two to three physical prototypes. Even though some physical prototypes are still required to complete development, reducing the number required greatly reduces development costs, and speeds up development timelines. Every product is different, but in a recent project at SGW Designworks, VR porotypes were used in lieu of three physical porotypes for a complex exercise equipment product. The estimated hard cost savings was $140,000 and saved five weeks of development time.