The Virtual Factory

Virtual and Augmented Reality constitute the bases for the integrated design of the Factory of the Future. Competitiveness among manufacturing companies also passes through the introduction of advanced instruments for the representation of knowledge and through simulation.

Marco Sacco, Head of Division, Enterprise Engineering and Virtual Application Group, Institute of Industrial Technologies and Automation (ITIA-CNR), National Research Council, Milan, Italy

For over a decade, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality have gained a foothold in many fields, including manufacturing, thanks to the potential offered by these forms of content display and enrichment. By combining these technologies with simulation and organizing information and knowledge on production systems, a “Virtual Factory” can be created - a faithful reproduction of the production system that can be used as support in plant design/reconfiguration and optimization, as a monitoring instrument as well as in training and maintenance activities. Additionally, it can be an effective means of communication and marketing.

VIRTUAL REALITY AND AUGMENTED REALITY. Virtual Reality (VR) is a digital representation of a “world” the user can enter, interface and interact with in real time. This digital world can be a reproduction of reality or of an imaginary scenario. A VR environment should supply the user with a visual (3D), auditory (stereo), tactile and olfactory sensorial experience (like Morton Heilig did with the Sensorama system). Today, visual rendering is the most advanced form, while rendering of the other senses is still at the prototype stage, not yet satisfactory or not sufficiently used. Augmented Reality (AR) focuses on the sense of sight and it is the visual perception of objective reality that is enriched (augmented) digitally and in real time with visual (digital) elements capable of giving contextualized information (AR is not merely superimposing text).

Several years ago, VR and AR, although appealing and full of potential, remained on the back burner because there were no technologies available that made it possible to apply these techniques outside the laboratory. If once bulky monitors, visors, sensored gloves, etc. only available to a chosen circle of scholars were used, today the market offers a wide range of technologies (typically: graphic cards, projectors and 3D glasses, goggles, track systems, tablets, smartphones) at accessible prices that allow the industrial world to be able to seriously consider adopting them and the “audience at large” to get to know and appreciate the potential of AR and VR.

THESE PIONEERING TECHNOLOGIES ALLOW A SIMULATION THAT HELPS ANSWER THE QUESTION “WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF?”. For example: what would it be like if the dashboard of the car was glossy instead of opaque? How could we present a new concept/product/system to the board of directors? How could we illustrate a non-transportable system to a potential customer? From these questions, it can be inferred that if it were possible to somehow completely represent and simulate the “object” in question, we would have the enormous opportunity to try, manipulate, make mistakes, change, reconfigure the “object” several times over, saving time and money at every step. In this sense, in the field of applied research and in the world of industrial production systems, the term “Virtual Factory” was coined a few years ago to indicate the lines of research where VR and AR and other technologies are tentatively being applied to create a global and overall simulation of Production Systems. Today, these technologies have a wide array of applications in several different fields that include tourism, entertainment, medicine and surgery, manufacturing, cultural property, design, fashion, marketing, training. CNR-ITIA is actively involved in national and international projects in the field of applied research where VR and AR are employed as support instruments in creating the product, in the production system and also in the medical field of rehabilitation. A VR environment for maintenance training in the aeronautics field (Virtual Hangar) was created; a system for trying on customized virtual shoes in AR (MagicMirror); an application to support the elderly and persons with certain types of illnesses in taking their daily dose of medicines (Monitech); a system supporting the control and motivation in rehabilitation programs following a stroke (Riprendo@Home); a software to plan and control the missions of remote-controlled aircraft (DroneAGE, Space4Agri project).

VIRTUAL FACTORY: THE FACTORY OF THE FUTURE. The development of the Virtual Factory at CNR-ITIA began about 15 years ago with the creation of a prototype within the EUREKA! ManuFuturing project. The system consisted in a virtual environment where one could navigate and interact by gesturing, wearing sensored gloves, stereoscopic glasses and watching a large screen. The functionalities allowed arranging production machines and resources on a worktable and interacting with a process simulator in order to assess the performance of the designed layout. In the subsequent Modular Plant Architecture (MPA)research project, a prototype was implemented using a sensored helmet to allow the user to freely move about in the virtual environment, exploring it at 360° and naturally interacting with virtual objects.

THESE INITIAL PROTOTYPES WERE BASED ON COMMERCIAL SOFTWARE AND ON EXPENSIVE GRAPHIC WORKSTATIONS WITH UNIX OPERATING SYSTEM, but with the evolution of PCs equipped with more powerful graphic potential, CNR-ITIA began developing software based on the Windows/PC platform and on the OpenGL graphic library. The first results came in 2004 within the EUROShoE project, where a laboratory was created at the institute for the customized production of footwear. It was a virtual factory, where it was possible to configure and visualize the production process thanks to the connection with an external simulator. Subsequent progress led to the creation of a software library (GIOVE) used for example in the project to create a Windows-based factory-design support environment. The next VFF (Virtual Factory Framework) project allowed developing a new version of GIOVE-VF that makes interacting with other applications - simulators in particular - possible.

And VFF can indeed be defined as an integrated collaborative environment aimed at sharing information and knowledge relative to the factory in order to support the design, management and monitoring activities also through the use of a semantic repository. The factory project defined in the virtual environment can be used to generate a simulation model, while the simulation’s output in terms of event log can be processed to create a dynamic animation of the objects within GIOVE-VF.

CONCLUSIONS. Virtual factories are becoming an optimal tool to support the design and optimization of production systems. Thanks to these, experts can meet together in a spirit of collaboration, in front of a realistic presentation of the factory that makes the contributions of the different dominions more understandable and where it is possible to analyze the ‘what would happen if’ scenario.

For further information, you can contact the author, Dr. Marco Sacco, Marco.Sacco@itia.cnr.it, and participate at the conference of the European VR and AR association 15-16 October, 2015 Lecco (Italy) http://www.eurovr-association.org/conference2015/

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