Virtual reality Virtual learning could soon be an option for machinery operators

Editor: Stefanie Michel

As machine tools become ever more complex, their operation and NC programming demand a good measure of know-how. One way to prepare operators is with virtual reality. Learning is the goal, but this technique has other advantages.

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Learning the operation of a machine tool in a virtual environment: the real controller is coupled to a virtual machine model.
Learning the operation of a machine tool in a virtual environment: the real controller is coupled to a virtual machine model.
(Source: Chemnitz TU, IWP)

The more complex devices and machines become and the more functions are integrated into them by manufacturers, the more difficult it is for users to operate them. This facet of modern life is familiar to many of us in our everyday interaction with entertainment, electronics or cars, but even using washing machines is becoming increasingly complex. In view of a growing lack of skilled staff, this shortage could become a problem in the future.

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One solution is presented by a virtual reality (VR) environment, where trainees can more easily transfer their theoretical knowledge to real objects. Well established in flight simulators, VR-based training applications are already being put to use in industry – particularly in assembly and service.

Coupling real machines with virtual machine models

The departments Virtual Product Development and Process Informatics, under the chair of Machine Tools and Forming Technology at Chemnitz Technical University, are researching the use of virtual reality for training applications as well as the coupling of real machine controls to virtual models. The NC-VR couplings they are developing are said to offer a very promising starting point for use in training applications. Here, the real NC controller is coupled to a virtual (true-to-reality) machine model, from which the following applications result:

  • The operation of a machine tool via a CNC controller can be learned without risk. At the same time, no material is consumed nor tools worn.
  • Learning NC programming by virtual testing of newly written NC programs.
  • New technology can be demonstrated more comprehensibly, since one stands, so to speak, directly beside the virtual milling process.

Virtual techniques open numerous new possibilities, from virtual assistance systems or the planning of assembly sequences to VR-based training environments. The significance of this technology for industry becomes obvious from the projects in which research institutes become involved. The EU-supported U-Trust-It project, for example, is concerned with the development of suitable feedback mechanisms and user surfaces for facilitating the use of the internet. Here, VR technology is employed in order to create a test environment in which the prototype user surface and feedback mechanisms developed in the project can be tested at an early stage.

But the Chemnitz Machine Tool Department also makes use of VR technology in student training: familiarity with the functional principles of complex machine tools, for example, is acquired more easily this way.