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Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

Virtual Engineering Fosters Real Collaboration

New visualization software and hardware re-establishes that personal connection.

Virtual Engineering Fosters Real Collaboration
Photo courtesy of ACUITIV Software
Virtual engineering gives users the ability to interact with simulation data in a virtual environment.
By Dr. K. Mark Bryden and Dr. Karen Ringel

One advantage of physical prototyping is the design collaboration it fosters. Project and process engineers, stylists, managers and even customers can gather around a physical mockup and, from that grouping, opinions and input will naturally follow. However, physical prototyping is expensive and is being displaced by computer-generated simulations in many stages of the design process. While cost-effective, the collaborative element so helpful to design decision-making can suffer in the new age of computer-aided engineering.

An emerging field that seeks to re-establish, if not revolutionize, the collaborative nature of engineering design is virtual engineering. Virtual engineering is a user-centered process that provides a collaborative framework to integrate all of the models, data and decision-support tools needed for good engineering design. Using established virtual reality visualization hardware, virtual engineering is pushing the application of that hardware from interactive post-processing of computational data to virtual design, analysis, operation and optimization.

The goal is to integrate a broad spectrum of engineering tasks into a virtual environment. In doing so, the collaborative spirit of physical prototyping is recreated around a prototype almost as real. Beyond this benefit, virtual engineering can layer more data into the process than any physical prototyping process could. Imagine a prototype that a user can interact with, interactively color according to simulation or experimental data, change shape and properties, immediately analyze the design impacts, and optimize component design by itself and as part of its larger system.

For this imagined process to become fully realized, at least five components must come together. The five components are: virtual reality visualization techniques; real-time analysis; coupling and integration of numerical models; remote collaboration infrastructure; and on-demand information handling.

While most of these components are not yet fully developed, the first foray into virtual engineering is the development of the virtual engineering workspace. Virtual environment hardware has been combined with software to bring engineering data into the virtual world. Applications are currently used in automotive design, medical and chemical research and development, aerospace engineering and many other industries.

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