Late last spring, engineers at Searle, the pharmaceutical subsidiary of Monsanto, discovered a design problem in a factory the company was planning to build. Two pipes on top of a piece of equipment called a fluid bed drier would stand 6.08 meters tall, but the ceiling would be only 6.05 meters high. To figure out whether they needed to raise the ceiling, engineers would normally have to roll out a jumble of blueprints and spend hours comparing architectural and equipment drawings.
“Nine times out of ten in this situation, you’re looking at structural steel drawings from a different contractor from the one who designed the equipment,” says Brian Dodds, director of manufacturing engineering for Searle, based in Skokie, Ill. “The two sets of drawings are not to the same scale, and they are not combined on one piece of paper, so it’s difficult to marry up the different elements visually.” That difficulty translates into time and money.
This time, however, the engineers donned 3-D glasses and stepped into a room-sized virtual reality theater at the University of Illinois at Chicago known as the CAVE (Cave Automated Virtual Environment, an allusion to Plato’s parable of the cave, exploring perception, reality, and illusion). When they inspected the virtual ceiling and the virtual fluid bed drier, they were relieved to discover that the pipes on top of the equipment would fit perfectly into a gap between steel girders in the ceiling.
Searle is one of a handful of U.S. companies that are beginning to discover that virtual reality technology can save them millions of dollars in design and construction costs-even before the first shovel of dirt is turned.
Developed in 1992, CAVE is the brainchild of Thomas DeFanti, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and UIC art professor Daniel Sandin, now codirectors of the university’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL). The million-dollar theater is a room approximately 3.2 meters square and 2.7 meters high. High-resolution 3-D video graphics from a Silicon Graphics workstation are projected in stereo on the walls and floor and viewed with stereo glasses.
Six months ago, Searle gave researchers at the university’s mechanical engineering department $100,000 to develop CAVE technology for a number of manufacturing-related projects, including plant design. The initial work was so encouraging, says Dr. Prashant Banerjee, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Virtual Reality Telecollaborative Integrated Manufacturing Environment, that the National Institute of Standards and Technology awarded Searle and the university a three-year, $1.65 million grant to develop a CAVE network so that engineers around the world could collaborate to design manufacturing operations and processes.
Searle representatives believe virtual reality technology will transform the way the pharmaceutical industry designs and builds new facilities. They estimate that CAVE systems could save the manufacturing industry $735 million a year.
A CAVE network such as the one Searle wants to develop, linked by a high-speed broadband network, has stunning applications for manufacturing, says Banerjee. If a Searle engineer in Moscow happens to notice a design problem in a factory under construction there and wants to work it out with a design engineer in Chicago, they can meet in virtual reality. The engineer in Illinois will walk into the CAVE where the image of the factory is projected. The engineer in Moscow can view the same 3-D image on her Immersadesk, a smaller device developed by EVL researchers that resembles a tilted drafting table. Instruments on her head and hand will project a computer image of her face and gestures into the CAVE in Chicago. While the Windy City engineer walks among the simulated factory’s pipes and equipment, he watches his counterpart point out the problems and examines them with her.
Scientists in about 50 research centers around the globe are already using CAVEs to study hearts, enzymes, and molecules in action; analyze weather hazards; build virtual cities; and design and test cars. So far, however, U.S. manufacturers (unlike their European and Japanese counterparts) have been slow to take advantage of CAVE technology. Searle managers hope that the networking technology developed under the NIST grant will spur more American companies to begin doing some virtual spelunking themselves.