As engineers, we’re constantly trying to innovate and stay at the top of our game. Computer-aided design and other software systems have become essential to our everyday workflows. They help us design better and faster.
Alongside the growth of these industry-specific technologies, we have also seen the rise in something else: virtual reality.
Virtual reality in the technology sector
Virtual reality (VR) has taken strides in recent years to become a contender in the tech realm. Its usefulness in industries beyond just gimmicky games, however, can be called into question. That said, VR seems to be here to stay – and some CAD systems are even integrating this tool into their workflows.
I don’t know about you, but engineers aren’t exactly strapping on VR headsets in their design flows yet. However, we could be soon.
VR in engineering just seems to make sense when put in the perspective of what we as engineers are trying to accomplish. When we design something, the key is to get from square one to square two as seamlessly and efficiently as possible, all the while being effective in our end design.
In the early 19th century and before, engineering was a lot more tactile. It meant getting out in the field or getting into the workshop and prototyping. CAD has made this process obsolete with simulation and geometry tools, but it’s still an essential part of understanding how engineers make things.
VR in CAD
Here’s where VR could come into play. If CAD programs start integrating VR as a visual tool into the design flow, engineers could soon start creating fully in the virtual realm. By far, the biggest advantage would be bringing what we’re making out of the 2D realm and taking it back to the old tactile ways of design.
As it goes with most new tech, this all sounds a little bit like a child's dream. Designing functional parts that aren’t just toys in virtual reality? NEVER.
We’re quick to make sweeping statements about which technologies won’t work in engineering and design, but keep in mind: engineers in the 50s would’ve thought 3D was just a child’s dream too.
If we look even deeper into what engineers have to consider in the overall design process, we can start to see some applications that might extend further beyond just simple design. For mechanical engineers, the parts we design have to interact seamlessly with other parts in the assembly. Assemblies become a little bit too much to handle without digital aids helping us understand them.
They also present one of the main ways that our designs can fail: interferences. Modern CAD tools can pinpoint where our assemblies don’t work because parts overlap or don’t fit together. VR would allow us to see these interferences in greater detail and develop a practical and efficient solution more quickly. Ultimately, technological advancement in engineering is always driven by a desire to be more efficient with our skills and time.
Similar to the way in which additive is slowly shifting the thought processes around manufacturing, VR could soon shift the way we go about designing new products.
We’re already seeing the world’s leading CAD companies positioning themselves to be at the forefront of VR and Augmented Reality tech. Autodesk introduces their VR/AR solutions as “immersive design.”
“With immersive design, engineers, designers, and builders can quickly and easily turn their CAD data into interactive, real-time experiences. AR, VR, and MR let you navigate data-rich design environments, so you can make better-informed decisions and create compelling experiences.”
Autodesk is arguably leading the CAD industry with their VR and Augmented Reality, but there are other tools like MakeVR that work with the HTC Vive to create designs. Solidworks, another industry leader in CAD tools also has their own VR integrations as well, positioning the tech to help in the following areas:
- Drastically reduce physical prototyping costs
- Improve internal design/engineering reviews
- Make important decisions much earlier in the development process
- Create viral marketing experiences to promote your newest products
VR does have some drawbacks, though, as I’m sure every skeptical mechanical engineer is screaming at the screen right now.
If you were trying to add fine dimensions in VR in sharp detail, that would just be a nightmare. Our hands aren’t that precise, and palpable immersive technology isn’t the most well-suited for this. VR can also get a little confusing when dealing with complex assemblies in anything other than an overview. It’d be like trying to put together some IKEA furniture without the instructions or any tools.
These drawbacks make it clear that VR will have its niche, but it won’t be a solution for every design. VR will come into play in troubleshooting designs and assemblies, visualizing designs in the real world, and confirming designs to move forward with manufacturing.
There are many engineers out there already using VR to layout mechanical rooms, visualize their designs, and otherwise immerse themselves in their design work. This tech is fairly accessible to the modern engineer if they want to get their hands dirty with a little coding, but it may soon be more mainstream in the future of making things.