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.

High-tech demands on virtual reality

But what are the technical pre-conditions for being able to create a virtual environment? For operator training on specific machines, projection screens, projectors and control computers are necessary for the visualisation.

Furthermore, for interaction with the VR model, a tracking system is needed, with which the position of the operator is detected. With the help of special VR software, it is possible to visualise the 3D models in which the operator will ultimately navigate via a suitable input device.

In the light of this technical elaboration, it soon becomes clear that VT-based applications remain very expensive and are still associated with a large work investment.

To create VR models and, from them, corresponding applications, it is moreover necessary to have specialists – even if research projects are already looking into strategies for creating such models automatically from CAD data.

The benefits outweigh cost and effort

In most cases, however, the benefits justify the creation of such applications. Staff can be trained on machines, for example, for which there is not yet even a real prototype. If the machine is already on site with the customer and bound up in the production process, training is nevertheless possible with virtual reality. In addition, it is possible to alter a machine by introducing new components or by moving towards a new machine generation, with much less effort than in reality. A major advantage is, of course, that real crashes, tool wear or material consumption do not take place in the virtual environment. The training time on the real machines can thus be reduced, which in turn saves costs.

In production technology in particular, virtual reality is gaining more and more importance. Besides training staff for machine operation, virtual reality is also being used for the production preparation and simulation.

This article orginally appeared in MM Maschinenmarkt and was written by editor Stefanie Michel