AUTOMAKER Ford has let us poke around its 3D Cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE), a simulated cavern where vehicles are designed and tested digitally to increase manufacturing efficiency while reducing the costs of building physical prototypes.
Based at Ford's research and development centre just down the road from the firm's production line in Cologne, Germany, CAVE acts as "an important tool in the car development program" and aids the prototype designing phase, allowing engineers to create more accurate design drafts in a virtual setting.
Giving Ford's 3D CAVE a test drive, we visited the site to get a feel of how virtual reality software can have such a positive effect on design and manufacturing processes.
Inside CAVE sits a dummy car interior consisting of a car seat, which acts as the vehicle. 3D simulations are then projected onto the ceiling and three surrounding walls via two "beamers" on each side that project images onto large mirrors, which reflect them back onto each wall. Each beamer has its own NVidia Graphics processor so high resolution images can be rendered smoothly in the environment.
Wearing hipster style polarising glasses and monitored by a motion detecting infrared system, the CAVE enables people to interact with the virtual vehicle. Hopping in to give it a spin, we were given a first hand look at how Ford's developers use the environment.
Ford's virtual reality supervisor Michael Wolf handed over two Wii remote controls with which we could then determine the driver's reach to virtual rear view mirrors and a steering wheel, or go as far as opening glove compartments and placing drinks bottles into door pockets, all of which were moved by clicking and holding buttons on the controls to grab them.
"[With CAVE] we are developing new tools for engineers to carry out assessments here in this facility to avoid additional prototypes because they cost a lot of money, they are very time consuming and are therefore trying to speed up the engineers and make their assessments as easy as possible," said Wolf.
He explained that before CAVE, drawings and prototype mock-ups would take up to three years to complete, but now with CAVE and the information available from designers using CAT software, scanning the engines for example, Ford is "getting this information and adding materials and textures to it so that after just two weeks it's already possible to use the car's interior and exterior".
Ford claims CAVE has changed the way cars are designed as it can be used to test and refine thousands of details of new car designs.
"Realising [vehicle design] issues later is expensive because you've already produced tools, costing money and time. It can take eight weeks to go to another iteration, but here you can do that without [spending] the same amount of money," Wolf said.
We were shown how the CAVE can preview and compare different possible vehicle designs with one click via the simulation software. With CAVE, you can compare how different designs can affect the driving experience without the need to build the part as a physical prototype.
Wolf explained that before the virtual environment was developed, it was easy to miss the direct relations between designs. "[CAVE] gives us opportunity to delete [possible car design aspects] or develop it further in a way that is more useful," he added.
CAVE was used to improve and optimise designs within several of Ford's present car models, such as in its recent B-Max car's Easy Access Door System, which offers hinged front doors and sliding rear doors integrated into central body pillars to offer better access for passengers and luggage.
CAVE also helped in the development of B-Max rear quarter windows so that they offer a better view for driving in urban conditions.
"3D simulations of different windscreen wiper approaches enabled engineers to identify the "butterfly" system, where the wipers move in opposing directions - as providing best visibility" Wolf added.
Ford also used the CAVE in its popular family car, the Ford Focus, to improve the use of its windscreen wipers as well as expanding leg space for rear passengers by testing designs for the front seats and the headrests, evaluating door frame design and its impact on visibility, minimising reflections that can affect the view through windows and of information displays.
The 3D CAVE works alongside 3D printing technology when physical designs are needed to aid the prototyping stage in order to produce shapes and one-off components that would have previously required many resources and hours of work.
Using 3D printing, Ford can produce hard and soft sections of prototypes measuring up to 700mm and comprising up to three different types of resin. The firm is researching the potential of producing large volume car parts using 3D printing, but wouldn't elaborate as to what capacity.
Wolf revealed that the 3D CAVE is being used to design new controls such as those that operate in-car entertainment system and opening and closing windows. "Real-time global illumination scenarios could allow engineers to analyse how interior lighting and reflections change through the course of the day and according to changing weather conditions," the company added.
Check out our video of Ford's 3D Cave. µ
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