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Metalcasting virtual reality and strategies for growth.

Beyond technological advancements, virtual concepts also can help you envision and plan the successful future of your business.

The term "virtual reality" is used in many different ways and, as such, has many meanings, depending on the specific application. The "virtual world" can represent the world in which we live, or a world that we know exists or could exist, but is difficult or impossible to experience firsthand. The "virtual environment" could be the imagined or envisioned world brought to life.

Whether you realize it or not, virtual reality is becoming almost commonplace in our society. Consider flight simulation games, in which you don head-mounted glasses and place yourself in a virtual world of flying, or virtual tours of homes, in which you can design and tour a new home. From an industrial standpoint, virtual reality software is readily available to conduct human factors and ergonomic studies, simulate assembly sequences and provide training relative to maintenance tasks.

To illustrate how virtual reality could impact our industry, imagine the following scenario:

You are a manager or engineer in a casting company who has just received a message from one of your major customers - an automobile company - that includes a data file for a new vehicle. You verbally instruct your computer to turn on and find yourself attending a large virtual meeting. Since you have the latest holographic cameras and projectors tied into your computer (rather than just video-conferencing) you project yourself into the meeting room with a number of other suppliers.

Before the meeting begins, you are informed that you will be given new and proprietary information, and you will be required to maintain confidentiality in accordance with the norms of the company. You "sign" the agreement by placing a thumbprint on the touch pad.

Then, you are able to access a fully interactive virtual product mark-up of the vehicle's proposed design. You also are able to view the entire vehicle in 3D, manipulating it to see the undercarriage, engine and other systems. The suppliers of interior components are able to enter the vehicle and "virtually sit" in the driver's seat.

As part of your confidentiality agreement, specific products and systems are designated as your company's responsibility to refine and finalize by providing computer-based engineering analyses to ensure performance requirements are achieved and supplying virtual prototypes.

All of the information to produce a real part is provided. With that, your customer requires you to provide a virtual agreement indicating your target pricing at your next meeting. You are to supply a solid parametric model of the prototype part for the real vehicle build. Your virtual prototype will be the only test part made prior to assembly of the initial vehicle, and real time revisions will be made at the next weekly virtual meeting. Finally, total vehicle costs will be analyzed and new targets assigned, if necessary.

Fact or Fiction?

The fact is that many of these concepts already exist or are in development. In Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory's Automatic Virtual Environment, also called CAVE, is one of four sophisticated virtual reality facilities in the world that lets scientists see, touch, hear and manipulate data and lets designers create and test models [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. It consists of a 10x10 ft room composed of screens. Inside the CAVE, 6-10 people can stand, wearing stereographic glasses, and view hologram-like images that allow them to immerse themselves in virtual representations to solve real problems.

Ford Motor Co., in its Dearborn, Michigan research organization, has a virtual reality project involving automotive assembly operations. Vehicle parts are represented in a CAD system. The CAD files are then transferred to a system with virtual reality equipment. A user then manipulates the virtual parts and attempts to assemble a virtual vehicle. Already, commercially available systems are reaching the market. This capability can shorten the learning curve, increase efficiency and decrease ramp-up time. Furthermore, the virtual workspace "protects" both the product and operator.

At a number of companies, virtual technology already is actively applied. Chrysler Corp. has designed, built and tested its new LH models using virtual design, prototyping and assembly, prior to even manufacturing the first part. The company has implemented a computer-simulated environment in Auburn Hills, Michigan, that uses real-time immersive visualization technologies to let design teams experience as-built systems. This enables Chrysler to quickly explore a magnitude of design options, thereby shortening design cycle time and reducing the number of costly physical prototypes.

In addition, a traditional physical mock-up of a car interior takes 6-8 weeks to build, while a 3-D virtual mock-up can be created in less than one day. Through immersion in the virtual model, designers and engineers can test to see if people of different shapes and sizes can see the mirrors, have desired window visibility and can reach all of the car's controls.

Foundry Applications

How does all of this relate to us as foundry people? At the Univ. of Wisconsin, actual component design is accomplished using virtual reality in the Integrated-Computer Aided Research on Virtual Engineering Design and Prototyping (I-CARVE) Laboratory. This is the next step beyond conventional CAD part development and placement in a virtual environment.

At I-CARVE, a new system, based on a workspace-instance-speech-locator approach, provides a natural, intuitive and easy-to-use interface. With this technology, the user operates in a 3-D workspace, which is viewed using stereoscopic glasses. Designs are created using speech to identify a geometric form and a tracking glove is used to control the size of the shape generated, placing it in the proper location. Injection-molded and diecast parts have been designed using this system, and many more casting designs will soon be on their way. The goal is the creation of a design system with 10-30 times the productivity of conventional CAD-based systems.

From here, this information can be translated into virtual prototypes and systems that can be animated, tested using various simulation methods such as finite element analysis and refined through rapidly altered parametric models. Similarly, these techniques can be used to simulate the manufacturing processes we use to produce these parts, such as mold filling, solidification and die distortion [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].

Thus, from a technology standpoint, virtual reality is not 10 years away, but, at the most, just 2-3. As described by David Cole, director of the Office of the Study of Automotive Transportation at the Univ. of Michigan, "The rapid acceptance of the kinds of things being done may essentially revolutionize much of what we think of as the design process today."

We have to apply virtual thinking if we are to be competitive in the future. We must accept that the growth of our business depends on the value we create for our customers. We must recognize where our customers are moving and what technologies they are embracing. Keeping in step with them is a vital strategy for growth.

Virtual Business & Virtual Thought

Let's now explore a more abstract concept - that of "virtual business." Virtual business includes virtual industries, virtual corporations, virtual integration, virtual buildings, virtual staffing and virtual education of our workforce. It requires the use of "virtual thinking," or thought processes that encompass where we want to go, how we expect to get there and what is required to accomplish our objectives. In simplistic terms, this starts with a vision and mission for our industry, company or technical society. Using this vision, we can transform long-term goals into real strategies and plans. In other words, using virtual reality, you must design, simulate and manipulate your business process much like the operator does with virtual reality for product design and prototyping. Now, instead of envisioning geometric shapes and assemblies, the objective is to assemble your business system using virtual thought.

The next step is to carry out the plan, and this is still another area where virtual concepts can come into play. Most of you are feeling pressure from your customers to provide more services ranging from finite element analysis, complete 3-D CAD designs and rapid prototypes, to product testing. Also, many foundries are being pushed to locate operations close to customers. In many cases, this be comes almost impossible for a single company to do, not only in terms of investment, but human and technical resources. This led to the advent of "virtual corporations."

A virtual corporation is an emerging organizational form that best combines a fluid ability to adapt to rapidly changing markets with the ability to leverage its skills with the complementary skills of other corporations. Basically, it is an enterprise that can marshal more resources than it currently has on its own using collaboration to grasp specific market opportunities. As noted by Jan Hopland, a Digital Equipment Corp. executive who probably coined the phrase, the technology metaphor of virtual was used because "it was real, but it wasn't really quite real!" The virtual corporation and its various sub-entities are now becoming commonplace and almost a necessity for growth - in some cases, even survival [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].

The benefits of a virtual corporation are:

* members have access to a wide range of specialized resources;

* a unified or global presence to large corporate customers;

* individual members retain independence and are able to develop their niche skills without being encumbered by a large bureaucratic system;

* membership of the corporation may be changed and reshaped, depending on the task at hand;

* no need for members to worry about "divorce" settlements, as with true joint ventures.

Closer than You Think

Many of you are probably thinking, "My company doesn't have anything to do with virtual systems, so this certainly doesn't apply to me." Think again, and consider some of the following examples relative to internal relationships. How often do you directly communicate using technologies such as voice and email and faxes? Also, do you provide team notes and assignments, along with the ability to set schedules using computer software? Significant cost savings are achieved using videoconferencing to hold virtual meetings. Not only is travel time saved, but these types of meetings are more effective and efficient since the attendees are typically better prepared.

Virtual Staffing

"Virtual staffing" also relates closely to these internal communications concepts, again utilizing the rapid advances in telecommunications and computing to make the world "smaller." In the Detroit area, unemployment is very low, and those with computer-aided engineering analysis and design skills are at a premium. Furthermore, more transnational OEMs and their suppliers are locating in Detroit, boosting the demand for skilled workers and their salaries.

My company has adopted the approach of "virtual staffing" to overcome these problems. We have established CAD satellites in a number of regions for different purposes. One such satellite is located in Saginaw, Michigan, where there is an abundance of experienced foundry retirees, who do not want to move at this stage of their lives but who are eager to do the work we need. We have similar satellites in the London area and Gothenburg, Sweden, where we can place engineering and design personnel next to our customers. We also have a satellite in Iowa, where there is a knowledgable workforce available within a reasonable salary structure. All communicate and transfer data as if they were on-site at our technical center in Detroit.

Relative to customer-supplier relationships, virtual systems are resulting in closer, faster and more efficient linkages, as well as more strategic involvement due to a greater degree of information sharing. Because of their position in the supply chain, almost all foundries are required to implement EDI, or electronic data interchange. Using EDI, we have established a virtual system of ordering, scheduling, releasing, shipping, receiving, invoicing and paying for our castings. Sophisticated software systems that essentially eliminate the need for human interaction in this process have been developed.

Combining all of these technologies, we are rapidly redefining the value chain relative to the production of a product. For example, in the worldwide metalcasting industry, we are seeing the outsourcing of what were believed to be fundamental manufacturing functions of our day-to-day business, such as the production of cores, lost foam patterns, heat treating and even finishing operations. In the redefined value chain, we are seeing more companies accepting CAE and CAD responsibilities, previously handled by their customers. Also, tooling construction, often outsourced to independent pattern shops, and product testing, a long-time bastion of certified outside test labs, are being moved in-house as they become strategic to the productline focus of the value chain. Similarly, many companies that were once satisfied with providing as-cast parts are now stepping up and taking on finish machining and assembly of systems.

Those foundries that are taking on the responsibility of higher value-added and product-critical services such as engineering, design, testing, machining and assembly are progressing toward a higher level in the value chain and a more influential and controlling position in the virtual corporation.

Virtual industries

From the virtual corporation, the next step up is "virtual industries." The risks, costs and time spent on advancing new technologies and products are often too great for a company to deal with alone. In many countries, competing companies are encouraged to work together in developing new technologies; after the technology is established, each of the participating companies can use, focus, evaluate and adopt it for their own specific purposes. While downplayed and/or forbidden in the U.S. for many years/because of anti-trust regulations, more liberal interpretations of the law are allowing visual industries, often made up of consortia of competing companies, to work together to spread risk and cost, shorten timing and improve overall competitiveness. In the foundry area, we see consortia like this formed through technical societies such as AFS, in university settings such as the Aluminum Casting Research Laboratories at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Massachusetts, and with government agencies. More fluid, networked organizations are natural evolutions of virtual industry efforts.

Virtual Reality and the Individual

Certainly, visual reality also will have an impact on the individual, most visibly in education and training. A workforce must be continuously educated in new areas and trained to use the latest technologies to most efficiently do its job.

"Virtual education" is taking many different tracks. With the high cost of travel and loss of valuable time, training using interactive video-conferencing techniques is widely used. For example, EXEN is a networked organization of universities and educational institutions that provides executive courses ranging from management in the global environment to understanding financial statements for non-financial managers. Courses can range from one session to multiple classes taught over a period of time. Using a "satellite dish," the classes are taught in real time, often using specially prepared classrooms with dedicated phone lines that permit interactive discussions between students at many different locations and a professor.

With the availability of advanced personal computing power, the utilization of sophisticated simulation programs provides still another means of virtual training. In general, these provide low-cost, low-risk and time-flexible education aimed largely at managers and executives within a corporation. One such simulation, "The Management Game," developed by Carnegie Mellon Univ., Pittsburgh, provides "hands-on" experience running a virtual corporation. This technique gives executives insight into company performance. Key advantages are that the simulation compresses time from years to hours, and only virtual jobs and money are affected. Similar programs are available to "manage" marketing, research and development, and strategic planning, as well as to develop negotiating skills. The computer is now the virtual teacher.

Strategies for Growth

How does virtual reality fit into strategies for growth for our metalcasting industry? The only way to truly grow your organization is to create more value - for your customer, your industry, your company and the individuals who make up your company. The problem is that value, like so many other things in our world today, is constantly changing. Many values that we thought highly of 10 years ago are just qualifiers or entry tickets now. This includes having proven delivery and quality capabilities, technical competency in your business area and a financially viable organization. Today, these are expected, and new value creators are necessary to differentiate your company from the rest of "the pack." Full-service capability in engineering, development, design, testing, advanced materials, and process and product technologies are now required by customers to provide value and, equally as important, offer you some command over your own destiny.

The expectations of our customers, shareholders and even our employees do not stand still - the bar is constantly raised. Here is where we take actions that are beyond present expectations, create more than anticipated value and, perhaps more significantly, match what is valued by the customer. All too often we evaluate ourselves and conclude that we are doing an excellent job and supplying significant value to our customers. We must make sure, though, that the customer has the same perception. If our values don't match, we simply are not satisfying our customers and responding correctly to our companies, both from tangible and intangible standpoints.

Looking at tangible benefits, we know that the competitive marketplace is demanding that the entire supply chain provide, in shorter time frames, products that perform better at lower cost. In fact, we must take this a step further and provide ways to both excite and delight the customer. Adopting technologies such as virtual design, engineering analysis, prototyping and assembly accomplishes many of these goals [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. By changing a virtual dynamic model early in the design process and exercising design variations until the performance is optimized, virtual prototyping can significantly reduce product development time and cost compared to traditional approaches relying heavily on hardware construction and testing. The ability to apply these technologies and integrate them certainly can delight customers by allowing them to hit critical windows of opportunity with a high level of confidence and at a low initial cost.

What about the intangible portion of the equation relative to growth? Certainly the customer has the same objectives relative to performance, time and cost, and it is becoming less likely that an individual company in our industry can meet all the requirements of the customer. Herein, lies the value of the virtual company and virtual systems. By developing virtual organizations, groups of companies can successfully provide the customer with the services and resources required as a single presence on a global basis. This permits the customer to deal with one entity for engineering, development, design, prototyping, testing and multi-component assembly worldwide.

Last, don't overlook the use of virtual reality in enhancing the intellect of the workforce as a competitive strategy for growth. Continually providing training, education and exposure to new ideas, while increasing experience and skills through on-the-job training and exposure to new or different areas, increases the accumulated knowledge base of the company.

While most of a company's assets, such as buildings, equipment and machinery, begin to depreciate the day they are acquired, and their processes and products often become rapidly outdated, intellectual capital, or the combined knowledge, competence and, hopefully, commitment of the workforce, appreciates each day. Thus, in building the intellectual capital to grow your company, the use of virtual training and education will become an increasingly important driving force, especially as time and costs are constrained.
COPYRIGHT 1998 American Foundry Society, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Ruff, Gary F.
Publication:Modern Casting
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Previous Article:Boost the efficiency of your gas-fired aluminum reverberatory furnace.
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