Soaring through virtual aviation: The role of VR in aerospace manufacturing

By Geoff Turner
Stanley G. Weinaum described virtual reality (VR) back in 1930, long before the term was officially coined. In Pygmalion’s Spectacles, he explored the...

Stanley G. Weinaum described virtual reality (VR) back in 1930, long before the term was officially coined. In Pygmalion’s Spectacles, he explored the idea of a pair of goggles that users would wear to experience fictional worlds. Now, his vision is a reality with virtual reality headsets taking the world by storm; and not just across consumer electronics fields. Industries, such as the aviation and manufacturing sectors, are also starting to use VR during the design process.

In this article, Geoff Turner, business consultant at product lifecycle management (PLM) expert, Design Rule, examines the use of VR throughout the aerospace manufacturing sector.

While most of us would likely assume the link between VR and the aviation industry as an opportunity for consumers to soar like a bird through a virtual space, the aerospace industry is, in fact, capitalising on the technology in more productive ways.

Perfecting prototypes

As Robert Thierauf explains in his book, Virtual Reality Systems for Business, VR systems can save millions in development costs by eliminating the need for full-scale prototypes. For example, Thierauf says, “Boeing is using VR for use in designing and testing new commercial aircraft and has helped development teams address human-factor issues in preproduction designs.”

By designing aircraft in virtual space, designers can explore a virtual mock-up of the entire aircraft and can work to eliminate issues faster than normal. For example, should a vital gauge or access point be blocked by panelling, it can be easily adapted in a VR design in a space of hours, instead of taking weeks with prototyping and testing processes.

Cabin for comfort

It’s not just the maintenance and engineering elements of the aircraft that are being designed in virtual spaces. For instance, Airbus has been working with VR technology since 1997 and uses Ramsis, or the realistic anthropological mathematical system, for interior simulation. This allows clients to experience an immersive 3D version of their cabin design.

According to Airbus engineer, Dieter Kasch, "You can install a seat, calibrate it with the interiors theme, and then sit in the aisle or window seat and see different views of your cabin from these varying positions. The important thing is that clients can now see what they're going to get. Changes at a late stage cost time and money, so it helps us deliver our aircraft on time and on budget.”

Not only does this way of working save time and money in the design process, it also means passengers will have a more comfortable and ergonomic journey. The space for a passenger’s knees and feet, for instance, can make the difference between a comfortable journey and an experience similar to being a tinned sardine. If these elements have been thoroughly checked and tested in the virtual design phase, it is more likely to increase passenger comfort levels in reality too.

Design, visualise, realise

Virtual reality has extended the horizon of what design engineers can create and experiment with, without having to invest in costly and time intrusive prototypes. This also enables quicker management decisions and the ability to adapt to industry innovations.

While virtual reality is aiding the design engineering and development of new aircraft, it will never replace the real world in terms of realistic scenario testing or consumer experience. However, it has already helped to design more comfortable and ergonomic cabins, while reducing costs and time-to-market for manufacturing and testing stages. By involving product lifecycle management (PLM) software providers, like Design Rule, into the process, design engineers and manufacturers can accelerate their development and opportunities for success.

Moving ahead of current capabilities, organisations, like Airbus, are already looking into virtual simulations, fully interactive elements and a developed sense of realism in the virtual world through integration of other senses, like touch and smell. The use of virtual reality in the aviation sector isn’t going to be landing anytime soon, in fact, it’s only just taking off.


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