Sure, HoloLens is cute, but Ford was making VR work before it was cool

Elizabeth Baron found genuine use for virtual reality in the design process

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"There were three points when it changed," Baron noted. "First, when we wanted to streamline the design process. How can we visualise things to take time off product development? That's when we built our first CAVE (a room-scale virtual environment), so designers could walk around a simulated vehicle, get inside, and get a feel for it. That's when virtual assessments of design became an integrated part of the design process – for the first time.

"Second, when simulation extended from design into manufacturing. We had all the data for our vehicles – that was a product of work at Ford many years before – now we could take that data and simulate it along with the design. That made it possible to represent the build conditions in the immersive environment. Not just how the car looks, but how it comes together on the assembly line, during the manufacturing process.

"Finally, we got to the point where simulation allowed us to have a global collaboration and design review. We had folks in Australia talking to executives in America, everyone looking at the same model, everyone with the same capability to point at something, ask questions about it, make changes to it – changes that everyone would see immediately. That's something we'd never been able to do before, and as soon as we got to that point, that made the case at Ford for going all in on immersive simulation and visualisation.

"The efficiencies are phenomenal. Because it's relevant to everyone in the company – through their own lens. What an artist understands, what an engineer understands, what someone on the manufacturing line understands – they're all different, but they're all here in the simulation. Just change the view to fit their lens."

Now Baron is back to using supercomputers to handle the demands of a company-wide platform for simulation. "We deliver real-time ray tracing of the immersed perspective in 4K resolution – that takes a lot of CPU. But it means a designer can specify the physical qualities of the materials they're using. Everything looks and acts real."

That feedback between designer, engineer and manufacturer means the enormous capital and material flows required to make a car – one of the most complicated mass-produced items – can now be simulated all the way from idea to customer.

In another 20 years, the integration of simulation with manufacturing will have moved from exotic to ordinary, with AI systems supporting design decisions. Ford recently launched a new AI research team to tackle the issues of autonomy, mobility, sensors and drones.

All of these product pipelines will be knitted together with next-generation mixed-reality systems, providing a lens onto any process an employee needs to focus on at the moment. While that may sound a bit far-out, it's closer to reality than Baron's vision, 25 years ago, for a fully simulated design and manufacturing process.

As simulation integrates into our industrial processes, those processes change, and our capacity to be creative with them grows accordingly. The stage is set for an explosion of forms, features and futures for transport. Simulation is touching the real. ®


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