In fact, the twenty-first century could see Africa at the forefront of technical innovation as it enters the realm of the digital factory.
The digital factory, a three-dimensional interactive computer simulation of the actual manufacturing process in action, will allow African, and especially South African, engineers to become international competitors in a world which is experiencing ever-decreasing research, development and lead times. As a computer-generated environment which is experienced visually and by audio, VR programs offer great benefit to the user, including shorter research and development cycles, shorter lead times to market for product design, improvements in product quality, greater customer satisfaction, as well as providing a powerful new training tool. Two types of VR are distinguished, namely immersive and desktop VR.
The immersive, the more commonly-known VR environment, is experienced by means of a head-mounted display, which consists of two small video screens and a pair of headphones.
Stereo viewing and stereo sound can therefore be experienced and the position and orientation of the user’s head is tracked by means of a head tracker.
Objects in the virtual world may be manipulated by means of a data glove, and the user may navigate, for example, walk, within this virtual environment by means of a space controller.
The desktop VR environment, which includes the digital factory, is experienced by means of a normal computer monitor and speakers.
The user may navigate within the virtual world with a keyboard, mouse or joystick.
While traditionally associated with the defence and entertainment fields, VR technologies are taking giant leaps into mainstream industries, with more participants being introduced to the market every year.
In addition, while often regarded as an expensive tool, the development of the personal computer (PC) is getting to a level where good-quality simulation and visualisation can be achieved simply and with good effect.
Production engineers who make use of the digital factory concept in their designs are provided with a VR arena based on data generated in discipline-specific tools such as computer-aided design.
In this arena, all the disciplines involved in the business and engineering processes can simultaneously interact with virtual processes or product models, enabling engineers to set up a virtual factory, which clearly illustrates the challenges and solutions available to them.
While the South African manufacturing market has not yet embraced this technology as eagerly as the international market, the pressure put on local companies to become more internationally competitive and export-orientated is increasing the need for tools such as VR which have a positive impact on cost and lead times, maintains Automated Reasoning consulting manager Charles Anderson.
The Midrand engineering and manufacturing software solutions supplier is the only South African agent for Israeli software firm Tecnomatix Technologies, whose computer-aided engineering products were launched locally for the first time in December last year.
These products, which can be run from a PC, enable production engineers to plan and optimise a complete manufacturing plant, evaluate manufacturing feasibility of newly-designed products, design, visualise, simulate and optimise automated and manual manufacturing systems, as well as create and debug programs for robots and other machines using virtual machine tools.
Internationally, the products are being used extensively in the automotive, electronics and aerospace markets, reports Anderson.
“Traditionally, production engineers would discover factory layout problems only once the equipment was bought and the manufacturing lines set up,” Anderson tells Engineering News.
“By setting up a digital factory first, these problems can be prevented, saving millions of rands,” he reveals.
For example, using the general assembly solution package, the user can create virtually the complete assembly process from planning, managing, and detailed design to implementation on the shop floor.
This enables the design and optimisation of large assembly areas, consisting of manual and automated as well as hybrid workstations, and handles the complexities of plant layout and logistics, human factors, product variants, mixes and volumes.
Still in its infancy worldwide, VR technology is still new in South Africa.
An investigation into the international VR market by German organisations in 1997 revealed that only 5% of the possible users of VR techniques know about the real potential of the computer-aided visualisation and interactive simulation technology.
At present, VR technologies are mostly used by automotive companies due to the extensive capital outlay of their manufacturing facilities.
Taking this into account, South Africa already compares favourably with the rest of the world in terms of the development of new VR technology, and in industries such as mining and high voltage the country is considered a leader in the field, reports Fifth Dimension Technologies (5DT) MD Paul Olckers.
“In niche areas such as mining, where South Africa already has industry leaders, we have the capacity to become world-leaders in VR technology.
“We have some of the best engineers and computer scientists in the world, and our development costs are extremely competitive,” he maintains.
However, to realise this goal, companies will have to develop products not only for the local market, but with the international market in mind, since the South African market is probably not big enough to sustain a VR company, warns Olckers.
Established in 1993, the Pretoria company develops, produces and distributes VR hardware, software and full systems.
The company made news last year when it developed a VR training simulator to train continuous miner operators in conjunction with Sasol Mining.
The coal-mining firm has already reported significant improvements in its underground production sections and opportunities are being sought to market the technology worldwide at present.
“5DT thought globally from the beginning, and we export our products all over the world,” reveals Olckers.
The Department of Trade and Industry is also interested in VR technology.
Working together with the South African Excellence Foundation and CSIR, the department is developing a CD Rom using VR and multimedia technology to train owners of small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) in the concepts of business excellence.
This is important, as SMME development is one of the department’s key focus areas.
“Taking into consideration that few of the owners of these small organisations have tertiary education, we had to find a clear way to explain business excellence to them,” explains deputy director for standards and environment Erik Kruger.
“We saw the power of using visual communication through VR and realised what a powerful role it plays in business training,” he says.
VR is expected to really take off in the new century as a global trend, especially in the first part of the millennium, reports Kruger.
“South African companies can therefore not afford to be left behind,” he maintains.
One of the country’s greatest challenges in competing in this environment is the creation of a pool of experts in VR.
In this regard, a number of local universities and technikons are already involving engineering and computer science students in research into the virtual world, including the University of Stellenbosch, Rhodes University, University of Cape Town, University of Pretoria, Free State Technikon, Peninsula Technikon, Cape Technikon and Port Elizabeth Technikon.
The University of Stellenbosch is undertaking extensive development of VR for use in the business environment through its global competitiveness centre in engineering.
Officially opened in January last year, the centre promotes and facilitates competitiveness in local industry through training and education, the provision of leading-edge facilities and expert services and technology transfer to industry.
With ten industrial partners, it also enjoys strong support from the government within its technology and human resources for industry programme.
Through the centre’s agile product development division fundamental elements of VR technology are investigated and developed.
“This programme offers great benefits to the development of the South African VR market, with more than 180 undergraduates exposed to different VR techniques every year while developing a local database of components and equipment,” reveals university professor Dr D Dimitrov.
“In order to obtain a competitive edge, South Africa has to increase developments of new products to become more of a product developer rather than remaining a product user.
“This can only be achieved by a consistent implementation of virtual technologies within the principles of concurrent engineering,” he maintains.
South Africa also hosts the only VR training and promotion and development centre in the southern hemisphere in the form of CSIR Virtual Reality Solutions, which focuses on skills development and cost-effective VR model solutions.
The centre provides simulation and modelling solutions in the fields of mining, transport, architecture, engineering, construction, medicine, manufacturing, product development and the environment.
Co-director Dave Lockwood confirms that South Africa rates among the best in the international VR industry, and maintains that the technology could play a role in the development of the country. “Fully interactive, real-time VR simulation is revolutionising the way that we do business,” he maintains.
“Although the traditional linear business and development process has given way to concurrent processes in an effort to decrease lead time and cost, these efforts have only been partially successful – from initial design to final product usually requires a costly and time-consuming cycle of producing physical models and prototypes until designers, customers and other groups reach agreement.
“For industry and manufacturing, the VR arena allows interdisciplinary communication, which has a huge positive impact on lead times, cost reduction and quality,” he explains.
A plant design tool would enable the user to design and construct various plant or factory layouts and evaluate and modify them in real time.
Modifications or alterations would be incorporated instantaneously into the simulation, allowing design flaws to be discovered and possible solutions considered at an early stage of the design process.
The future facility can be evaluated for ease of maintenance and access, escape routes and safety requirements, or trying out various placements for plant machinery, reports Lockwood. Whereas it has applications in engineering, design in traditional First World countries, VR has a fundamental role to play in helping Africa move forward beyond the industrial age into a society based on information and knowledge, he adds.
“VR can greatly facilitate the transfer of context-specific knowledge b etween people and, in the African context, this translates into a communication medium that transcends traditional verbal and written forms of communication,” explains Lockwood.
“It also means that we have a communication tool that is powerful and context-rich as well as concept-rich and visual in experience,” he says.
The reality is that many marginalised people have the potential for wealth creation within their existing communities, despite poverty, illiteracy and lack of development opportunities.
“Many disadvantaged people need only to be empowered, and VR, as a visual ‘see me do’ environment, provides powerful tools with which this can be achieved,” expresses Lockwood.
Shedding its reputation as a developed-world technology VR is proving to be a valuable tool in engineering and manufacturing in all parts of the world.
As product-design lifecycles continue to shrink and South Africa is forced to become part of the globalisation process, industry will continue to find ways to become more internationally competitive, and the digital factory could be the key to unlocking that door.