The real value in 3D modelling technologies comes from data reuse, says Keith Nichols, a consultant at industry technology analyst Cambashi.
Long gone are the days when it would take several minutes to produce a full hidden line view when a relatively simple 3D model; when increasing the assembly size would only end in frustration and many believed that 3D modelling lacked practical value.
Suppliers have invested heavily in enhancing their capabilities through in-house development and, more recently, through acquisitions.
Today, 3D modellers have the capability to handle over 30,000 parts for a complete automotive vehicle, and three million for aircraft projects. This ability to scale up both model size and complexity at an acceptable user performance level has increased use.
Furthermore, while building a 3D model is unlikely to ever become faster than its former 2D approach, once completed, it can provide significant downstream benefits via reuse of information.
Design modification is fast and where common parts and sub-assemblies already exist in other designs, they can be easily reused on the current development, saving increasing amounts of time. The same design information can be reused in analysis, manufacturing planning, and workflow simulation, as well as preparing maintenance manuals. All of this happens long before a single part has been made.
New applications can further extend information reuse.
For example, Ford has established its 3D CAVE facility in Cologne, Germany and is using the 3D model of a vehicle to create a virtual reality (VR) experience for its test drivers.
They sit in a virtual car and evaluate its ergonomics whilst being subjected to different simulated road conditions. This provides them with the ability to assess new cars and make thousands of small refinements to the design before the expensive and time consuming process of building a physical prototype begins.
The 3D model has been used to evaluate numerous features of vehicles from rear-window visibility through to determining the best size and shape of cup holders.
In contrast with previous models where repeated re-work was done and further prototypes made until an acceptable design could be released to manufacturing, now only one prototype is made to confirm that it works.
Using its Cave Virtual Reality facility, Ford claims that it has been able to shave several months off the development cycle.
This reshaping of the underlying development approach using VR is not limited to the automotive industry.
It is now an established step during aircraft development and in the agricultural equipment sector Deere and Co is using VR on digital tractor designs so that they can test drive them before they are built. In all cases, the combination of 3D modeling with VR is transferring customer experience of the finished product to an earlier stage of the development process.
Beyond product design
A significant by-product of using 3D models with VR is the ability to provide staff with advanced training in the operation of a product or facility before being built. Staff can walk through a digital power plant and become familiar with its operational and maintenance procedures.
Similarly, the crew of fighting ships, can familiarise themselves with design controls and instrumentation layouts using this virtual capability. Emergency procedures can be assessed and design detail tuned to provide greater operational improvements.
Questions can be examined such as ‘are all the essential dials visible during manoeuvring?’, and ‘are the controls accessible?’
All of these situations can be virtually experienced and adjustments made if need be, long before the physical product exists.
Dassault Systèmes has gone a step further.
It has recently acquired software that enables users to consider their 3D products within a virtual replication of its environment. These capabilities could be used to develop a new road system through the countryside or a wind farm for energy generation.
The ability to visualise the potential environmental impact will give designers early warning of potential problems and enable them to provide resolutions.
A rapid growth technology
The list of applications that reuse the same 3D information is growing fast. They enhance the value of the design by enabling people to experience what it will be like when it is made.
It is clear that 3D modelling technology is not just about generating cost and time savings in product design. It is about closing the loop between design, manufacture, market introduction, customer experience and impact.
3D modelling has come of age.
The reuse of its information benefits most downstream activities in producing, delivering and supporting a product.
Using 3D solid modelling supported by a growing list of linked applications, manufacturers can work towards right first time delivery of its products and a holistic perspective.