Earlier this week, I posted an item about how technology could change the production process (The rise of the machines). In that posting I specifically highlighted a new technology that allowed for the “printing” of items in solid three dimensions. This could change how goods are “manufactured.”
But there is another part of the story — how goods are designed. A couple of years ago, we published a report on Virtual Worlds and the Transformation of Business: Impacts on the U.S. Economy, Jobs, and Industrial Competitiveness. The report described, among other things, how virtual worlds can be used in the collaborative design process. That possibility is rapidly becoming a reality.
For example, a couple of years ago, the Navy starting using Virtual World for prototyping. As a story in Government Computer News (Navy creates a virtual world to test submarine design) notes:
The Naval Undersea Warfare Center is doing that with an experimental approach to submarine design. It has created a Second Life-like virtual replica of a proposed design of a submarine’s control hub using architectural renderings of the new design. By being immersed in a new environment, submarine commanders will have a better idea of the proposed changes to the hub and can offer more constructive feedback.
“We would like to support rapid prototyping,” said Douglas Maxwell, technical lead for the project. “Basically, we would like to create an environment where the fleet, shipbuilders and scientists can collaborate on platform design. We could create many iterations of advanced design and let the users tell us which ones work and which ones don’t.”
Here are a couple of more examples. Sikorsky’s virtual reality center puts designers inside the unbuilt CH-53K heavy lift helicopter:
The Sikorsky CH-53K heavy lift helicopter currently being developed for the U.S. Marine Corps will contain more than 20,000 individually designed parts. This means building an experimental prototype of the aircraft ends up being one hell of a complicated three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. And if just one of the pieces doesn’t fit where it’s supposed to, it can cost millions of extra dollars. To find production and maintenance issues before things progress too far, Sikorsky has unveiled a virtual reality center that the company hopes will save it time and money in final assembly of the aircraft.
VR Breakdancing: Lockheed’s New Jet-Building Tool:
Officially, the Collaborative Human Immersion Laboratory, or — yes — CHIL — is an immersive virtual reality mechanism to cut down on the cost of building America’s Air Force. In reality, the CHIL gives engineers an excuse to do some VR line dancing. But that rings hollow. Lockheed Martin has just built its engineers a virtual-reality playpen, unveiled today and based in Littleton, Colorado. Employees are hooked up to a suite of motion-detecting sensors, gamer gloves and a head-mounted display helmet, with wires hanging out of their extremities and optional Tron-ready clothing.
Inside the CHIL’s “Cave” — the CHIL Cave! — they see themselves as uncanny valley-ready avatars, allowing them to test out and adjust various projects that the company manufactures to test their weak spots, all before the prototypes get physically built. Lockheed says it wants to use the CHIL to tweak its Air Force products, like the next-generation GPS satellite or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family of jets.
There is an important lesson here for public policy. These examples are all from the defense sectors. Once again, here is a case where defense procurement can lead in a manufacturing revolution. After all, remember it was the production of rifles that help spur the movement to interchangeable, machined parts that were a hallmark of the industrial revolution.
The trick will be more wide-spread adoption of the technology. As we noted in the report:
Policies funded by DARPA or DOC’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership could support government-industry associations with the exploration and evaluation of how Virtual Worlds improve product development and services between suppliers, end manufacturers, or service providers. These collaborations could also be linked to state programs to improve the use of new technology.
But even more needs to be done.
The federal government should promote policies that focus on the four main indicators that are likely to enhance this nation’s competitive status in the Virtual World economies of the future. The first group of policies should focus on ways that firms can transform themselves into collaboration enterprises. The second group of policies should focus on how rapidly collaboration enterprises can adopt new computer-based technologies. The third group of policies should address how well equipped employees are to work in a collaboration enterprise world. The fourth group of policies should focus on strengthening the technology base of the U.S. economy and creating a suitable environment for the operation of Virtual World technology.
In this way, we can help make sure these technologies benefit the entire US economy — and that the US is on the forefront of the next manufacturing revolution.