Manufacturing technologies: The V factory

Posted on 6 Feb 2012

Jane Gray learns about the technology investment that keeps on giving at Jaguar Land Rover – its virtual reality ‘cave’ – and about its innovative application to the very fabric of the company’s factories as well as its products and processes.

Nuts and bolts

Read this article to:

  • Hear the story of Jaguar Land Rover’s investment in virtual reality technology
  • Understand how this technology can be applied to factory planning and production line layouts as well as product and process design
  • Hear prediction on the future penetration of this technology across UK manufacturing as a whole

The use of virtual reality in the automotive industry to cut time and money spent on product development is now the norm. Since the early 2000s, and in some places even earlier, this technology has been applied by design teams to reduce wasteful physical prototyping, give design teams greater scope to experiment with design and technology variations and even allow manufacturing processes to be adjusted. It has been an integral technology behind the trend to ‘design for x’.

One of the highest profile projects to have been through The Cave is the development of the Range Rover Evoque which was a start to finish Cave project.
One of the highest profile projects to have been through The Cave is the development of the Range Rover Evoque which was a start to finish Cave project

Jaguar Land Rover was a late adopter of virtual reality by the admission of the company’s virtual reality manager Brian Waterfield. “When we began scoping The Cave the automotive industry as a whole was already well on its way in applying virtual reality technology. Being behind the curve we realised that we didn’t just need to catch up but to leapfrog ahead,” he explains.

And this is just what JLR did. The Cave virtual reality environment cost £2m to install and is powered 16 high performance PCs as well as two additional machines for processing CAD for the 3D projectors and for recording output data.

The 3D environment itself is created in a ‘blank canvass’ room in which three walls and the ceiling act as ‘screens’ for 3D projection. When wearing 3D glasses, an operator in the room can interact with detailed 3D representations of products and can run simulation tests to anticipate environmental impacts or disruption to the interaction of parts.

The 3D software comes courtesy of German technology provider, ICIDO and the projection equipment is provided by Sony. The majority of CAD designs are imported from CATIA – the Dassault Systèmes offering, widely used by automotive payers.

The Cave at JLR is one of the most advanced of its type in the world – and certainly one of the most advanced being used directly in industry. It has also proved an extremely canny investment which has never stopped bringing dividends since it became operational in 2008.

The original investment in The Cave was approved while JLR was still under the ownership of Ford and the motive behind its installation focused on the ability to cope with the constantly increasing levels of technology involved in the design and build of modern vehicles.

“Once you get to a point where this technology is being applied in the commercial market and is in people’s homes, more and more companies will begin to expect to be able to use it in their businesses” – Brian Waterfield, Virtual Reality Manager, Jaguar Land Rover

Pushing boundaries

The Cave quickly proved its worth in this area. The project had a target to redeem its investment cost within a year which it did with no problem. “Since then the cave has repaid the outlay made on it time and again simply through the constructive and qualitative decisions that are being made in the virtual world early on in programmes,” comments Mr Waterfield.

One of the highest profile projects to have been through The Cave is the development of the Range Rover Evoque which was a start to finish Cave project. “We took the development of the Evoque right from concept through to production in The Cave,” says Waterfield, explaining that this achievement takes the company one step closer to its goal of “using no physical properties and building a vehicle of exceptional quality.”

This is ambitious, and there are many in the automotive world who would consider it impossible. But whether or not this is so, it is representative of a determined approach to stretching the capabilities and applications of JLR’s virtual reality asset.

Another example of this can be seen in the innovative application of the technology to factory planning and the layout of production lines within JLR’s manufacturing plants. This use of the technology has proved an unexpected bonus to JLR. “We anticipated that manufacturing would use the cave to influence the build design of vehicles but we didn’t expect them to apply the technology for plant layout, alteration and problem solving,” says Waterfield. “But some time in the first year [of operation] a guy on one of the manufacturing teams we had in said ‘surely we can apply this to our track lines’”.

Since then there has been a growing use of The Cave for assessing track issues including safety, productivity and maintenance issues. “If we are making alterations to a track we can do it in virtual reality first, rather than trying to predict what the change will look like in a 2D drawing,” explains Waterfield. “Using The Cave in this way immediately brought an extra dimension to factory planning and has allowed us to eliminate problems we experienced before. For instance, sometimes there are small protrusions that stick out of the top of a jig. These might cause disruption to the roof structure of a vehicle on the line and in the past we did have experiences where we would have to think about repositioning or altering tools. This all causes delay and ultimately cost to the business. With 3D planning this is simply never a problem anymore.”

The 3D planning software in action
The 3D planning software in action

Total immersion

The scope for use of The Cave in factory planning is about to get bigger. JLR is in the process of a phase two improvement of The Cave’s technology in which the resolution of projections will be increased. A major focus of this upgrade work is to bring enhanced photorealism to projections. Waterfield comments, “at the moment immersion in The Cave feels like being in a CAD world. We want to be able to see leather, wood trim, metal and the reflection in glass or mirrors.”

For factory planning this photorealism will mean that not only can the kit on a line be planned with total accuracy, but even the local impact on the work environment of changes to lighting sources cana about be anticipated.

As many manufacturers look to select lighting sources that support green savings this ability could save time and money spent on trial periods for a variety of lighting options. In addition, as JLR expands capacity and builds its popularly hailed new plants at Solihull and Halewood, Waterfield is confident The Caves ability for perfecting factory ergonomics will truly come to the fore.

But this additional functionality being added to The Cave will cost a pretty penny. Although Waterfield could not give exact figures, he did share that the upgrade would exceed the cost of the original investment.

Given this, how likely is it that the kind of capability now available to JLR will ever be accessible for the wider UK manufacturing community? Waterfield is adamant that the penetration of virtual reality technology in manufacturing businesses will soon accelerate and become mainstream. “I think this technology will soon be used very widely in the manufacturing industry [not just by OEMs],” he asserts.

“Gaming is a big player in the 3D world now and while there are some stumbling blocks being experienced, once you get to a point where this technology is being applied in the commercial market and is in people’s homes, more and more companies will begin to expect to be able to use it in their businesses.” Waterfield concludes, “I recommend smaller manufacturers now take the opportunity to work with universities which are currently doing a lot of work to develop this technology for different areas of manufacturing.”