Games simulator transfers to manufacturing

Tom Shelley reports on a low-cost development that could bring powerful graphical modelling techniques into engineering

Hardware and software developed to make gaming more realistic has been adapted for manufacturing, helping to visualise processes such as metal forming, production of parts, robotics and the behaviour of fluids.

By inserting realistic variations in operating parameters, it is possible to simulate scenarios such as: a part being cut off, and landing somewhere it shouldn’t; or parts going through a machine or being moved along conveyors that sometimes fall off or get stuck.

The software has already been applied to modelling variations in pressure die casting. Rather than generate graphs or numbers, it quickly produces realistic 3D simulations, so that engineers – whether engaged in design or manufacturing – can instantly see what may happen, without having to wade through masses of data.

The breakthrough arises because Amtri, formerly the Advanced Machine Tool Research Institute, has combined the power of the Ageia PhysX accelerator board with the machine, production line and robot modelling capabilities of Visual Components.

Bob Lloyd, who manages the software side of Amtri’s software business, told Eureka that Visual Components is a Finnish suite of software that is completely object oriented, and is a factory, robot and machine modelling package made up of “modules that are suited to what you commonly want to do”. He said that it fills the gap left vacant by the acquisition of most of the other factory modelling suites by CAD majors – which have incorporated them into expensive CAD and PLM software packages that contain CAD modelling facilities that most SMEs neither need nor can afford.

Amtri, as the UK reseller of Visual Components and a licensed developer of PhysX applications, has combined the two within a Visual Components interface.

Visual Components, in its conventional form, consists of three main parts. ‘3DCreate’ builds and publishes 3D equipment libraries and factory simulations based on engineering data contained in CAD files, brochures and technical specifications. It includes COM and Python interfaces that allow component objects to be easily connected to other component objects or anything else. ‘3DRealize’ allows users to view, build and test different factory layouts. It includes the unique ability to snap together conveyors or other pieces of equipment from libraries. ‘3DVideo is a lightweight viewer that can be downloaded from the Web. Visual component layout files are small in size and can be sent as email attachments.

In a demonstration for Eureka a robot with a cutting tool had been set up using 3DCreate. The robot was set up to cut parts from a bar but with an obstacle beneath it onto which the cut off parts can fall. On pressing “Initialise dynamics”, which starts the PhysX, it starts to make its cuts. Because the cut off blocks have a certain degree of uncertainty in the way they fall and bounce off the obstacle, they usually go in one direction, but sometimes go in another. Such behaviour could be of great importance, in, for example, the decommissioning of a nuclear reactor, when parts dropping where they are not wanted could constitute a major problem.

Another demonstration concerns the behaviour of objects going down flexible chutes, leading to distortion effects that cause occasional items to become lodged. Similarly, the same approach can be used to model bottles going along a conveyor.
Amtri managing director Philip Sholl said: “You can change the thickness of the glass, and model the bottles starting to drop off as a result of their increased, possible distortions.”

Bob Lloyd describes the software library as “academically rigorous”, but emphasises: “We are not offering it as an alternative to finite element analysis – because it is not set up to produce graphs and numbers – but as a way of visualising processes and deformation. A lot of the time, if you can visualise a process, you can get a better handle on what is happening. There is nothing else out there that will do this in real time with such compelling results.”

One of the functionalities already available in the library is the draping and tearing of fabrics. In Amtri’s eyes, this translates into the behaviour of carbon and glass fibre layup in the manufacture of composite products, which is a field that Amtri has been heavily involved in for some time. One of their ideas is to develop the technology to support production of functionally integrated components such as composite car bumpers that would possess not only structural strength and the ability to absorb a certain amount of impact without sustaining damage, but also incorporate LED arrays instead of conventional light clusters, sensors to activate air bags, and radar antennae for intelligent cruise control and near object detection.

The PhysX library also includes the behaviour of sprayed fluids, relevant to spraying fabric during composite manufacture and paint spraying. There is no conventional CAD or CADCAM package that we know of that will model spraying at such a low level and allow users to clearly see in real time whether sprayed paint will mostly land on a car or whether large portions of it will go elsewhere.

Microsoft has also shown interest in Ageia and PhysX, and has licensed the same library as Amtri for use in its Robotics initiative. The latest version of the Microsoft Robotics Studio includes a simulated model of the Kuka LBR3 robotic arm. From the website, the developers also appear to be targeting research oriented designers of single and multiple mobile robot systems for primarily surveillance and security applications.

The PhysX board sells for around £200 and 3DCreate for around E7000. Microsoft Robotics Studio is at the second beta stage. More than 60 software developers are currently using PhysX in 100+ games but Amtri is the first organisation that we are aware of that is harnessing it for serious engineering applications.



* Combining Ageia Technologies’ PhysX with manufacturing simulation software produced by Visual Components allows visualisation of a wide range of manufacturing processes

* It is not intended as a replacement of finite element analysis, but as a means of visualising fast moving events in realistic 3D – including those that involve certain amounts of random behaviour

Tom Shelley

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