DETROIT -- Imagine walking through an assembly plant that hasn't been built yet and moving around pieces of equipment that weigh several tons just by pointing and dragging your mouse.
It's now possible with new, virtual-factory software that has been developed by University at Buffalo engineers. It is the first software designed for cellular manufacturing systems, which involve the production of separate parts on a shop floor and constitute more than half of the factories in the U.S. Called UB VR-Fact!, the software and the research that led to it were presented here today (May 14, 1999) at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.
It provides companies with a three-dimensional method of immersing themselves in and virtually designing large-scale plants. It also simulates operations, enabling manufacturers to identify and avert potential bottlenecks long before breaking ground for a new plant.
The software can be run on either a high-end graphics environment, such as an SGI workstation or on a Pentium-based PC.
"Our software can provide manufacturers with tools that enable them to model before they build, to simulate before they produce and to anticipate and solve production problems before they occur, all of which has the potential to lead to significant cost savings," said T. (Kesh) Kesavadas, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UB and director of UB's Virtual Reality Laboratory.
"UB VR-Fact! allows individuals to immerse themselves in or 'fly through' an environment and virtually rearrange machines, equipment and other objects just by pointing and dragging," he said. "It becomes very intuitive."
In 1996, Kesavadas and colleagues at Iowa State University, where he was then an associate scientist, developed a virtual reality mockup of a factory to help visualize a plant for Sauer Sundstrand, a maker of engineered hydraulic systems for off-road vehicles.
"We were building a new, flexible machining system and 'Kesh' and his team came in and programmed what it would look like in virtual reality," recalled Richard Brimeyer, who was production manager for the company. "It really enhanced the visual nature of the plan, and it probably helped us sell the investment to management because they could get in and walk through it and get excited about it," he said. "It also helped verify that our layout was sound."
At UB, Kesavadas and his colleagues have significantly advanced this idea through the use of mathematical algorithms and models so that the software simulates not only factory layout and the formation of families of parts, but factory production as well. Using probability-distribution equations, he and his colleagues have used the software to simulate an entire week of plant operation in just half an hour. With supercomputers in UB's Center for Computational Research, more complicated plants can be simulated effectively.
"The simulation can reveal how material flows through a production process involving 200 machines and 50 different parts," said Kesavadas. "It tells you where the potential bottlenecks are. Then you can simply change one parameter and do it again."
Other features of the software include automatic generation of most standard machines using the process parameters, detection of ergonomic problems, monitoring of shopfloor activities and interfaces with database systems. Applications are especially promising for companies that are considering building new plants in other countries.
"Suppose GM wants to start a factory in Russia," Kesavadas said. "Instead of incurring the substantial cost involved in sending a team of designers to the new site, the company can configure the plant virtually at its headquarters." He and colleagues are working on developing new versions of UB VR-Fact! software that will simulate the operations of individual machines, making it possible to "touch" the machines' controls, as well as simulate the assembly of individual parts.
Funding for research in UB's Virtual Laboratory is provided by Praxair, Inc., American Honda Motor Co. Inc. , the National Science Foundation, Veridian and UB.
Created on a Silicon Graphics ONYX 2 computer, the virtual factory can be visualized using a stereo head mounted display and Crystal Eye stereo glasses.
For information about this and other VR projects at UB, visit