October 31, 2017
Extended Reality (XR) and the Future of Product Design and Engineering
By: Mary Hamilton and Sunny Webb

Extended reality (XR) is revolutionizing engineering and design work by injecting new dimensions of reality into daily work processes. With the XR market predicted to rise to $80 billion by 2025,1 the growth potential and opportunities are huge. Engineers and designers are leveraging XR to design new products, cut costs, and stay cutting-edge.

Businesses across the construction, manufacturing, and automotive industries have already utilized XR for enhancing designs, improving visualization, communicating with clients, and rapidly testing concepts with consumers.

For example, engineers at Lockheed Martin leveraged XR to explore mock-ups for space vehicles and satellites.2 A construction company used XR to catch a mistake that could have cost millions of dollars to fix.And, Jaguar’s designers test-drove their virtual cars before physically producing even a steering wheel.4

Ready to dive in? Let’s explore several use cases to understand how engineers and designers can augment their work with XR.

XR assists design and visualization

Throughout the product development cycle, engineers and designers must constantly extrapolate from 2D designs to imagine how the end state of a product will look and act. However, from a neuroscience perspective, 2D images of 3D objects are cognitively limiting, difficult for our brains to process, and problematic to recall.Moreover, the human brain is finely attuned to stereo and motion cues, which explains why we find 3D representations easier to understand than 2D ones.6

XR bridges the gap between the digital and physical worlds by allowing engineers, designers, and managers to view the assets in their natural form. Alan Robles, the creative media leader of architecture firm Gensler, says, “one of the great things about being able to bring our design materials out of screen space and into real space is that we can interact with and evaluate our design product in context.”By interacting with the realistic products in the virtual space, architects can make better decisions earlier in the process, prior to developing physical prototypes.

Example view with Microsoft HoloLens’ SketchUp Viewer

Example view with Microsoft HoloLens’ SketchUp Viewer

Let’s look at some examples.

Accenture Labs wanted to explore how XR technology could make spatial reasoning easier for engineers and busy executives. We built a proof-of-concept for a car seat in Dassault’s CATIA, a 3D design platform. We placed CATIA design files in the Microsoft HoloLens headset so that viewers could understand how the flat design of a car seat would render in the real world. The CATIA CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software served as the single source of truth and was seamlessly integrated with the AR simulation. Any changes in the CAD design were instantly duplicated in the HoloLens in the form of a 3D Digital Double. Design teams and executives could interact with life-size models of the seat to make better and faster decisions.

Watch CHIL: Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory on Youtube. This opens a new window.

Proof of concept of using AR to visualize product designs

Likewise, Lockheed Martin leveraged VR to explore designs and mock-ups for space vehicles and satellites. Lockheed Martin’s Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL) facility employs VR to test products early in the development cycle, allowing architects and managers to suggest major changes without hefty costs related to sunk time or resources.By accelerating the process, designers can explore a variety of ambitious concepts with minimal overhead. With VR, stakeholders can sit inside of spaceships and experience the product before adding even a single screw.

In addition, VR assists engineers and designers with their specific tasks. Lockheed Martin explains that “technicians can practice how to assemble and install components, the shop floor can validate tooling and work platform designs, and engineers can visualize performance characteristics like thermal, stress and aerodynamics, just like they are looking at the real thing.”10 Rather than testing models or running hypotheticals, workers can use XR to immerse themselves in the realistic use-case, visualize the product in a 1:1 scale, and quickly understand how the product would function before it is real.

Watch CHIL: Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory on Youtube. This opens a new window.

With VR, companies have reduced costs by thoroughly investigating designs and construction sites prior to and during the development processes. One company secured construction site data using a drone and conducted a real-time VR simulation of the project. The management team quickly discovered an eight-inch misalignment of a $400,000 concrete slab. If the error had not been caught early on, the company could have lost millions of dollars.11

XR enhances communication with clients and executives

Companies often face the challenge of communicating the conceptual designs and spaces to non-technical clients and stakeholders. As Microsoft suggests, companies have transitioned from “vellum drawings and pretty watercolors to 3D computer renderings and tiny foam models—all time-consuming to make and update, and limited in conveying end results. It’s hard to imagine a miniature office as an actual office you’ll work in. It’s tough to envision the scale, size and feel of a 3D image by looking at a 2D screen.” 12 Inevitably, clients make changes to the design after construction or manufacturing have begun, which is expensive and time-consuming.

With XR, clients can fully explore the designs virtually and easily make changes before starting the building process.

A 3D building design, as seen through SketchUp Viewer on Microsoft HoloLens.

A 3D building design, as seen through SketchUp Viewer on Microsoft HoloLens.

For example, in 2013 McCarthy Building Companies constructed the Martin Luther King Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center in Los Angeles, CA. For this project, McCarthy asked doctors and nurses to wear VR headsets to provide design feedback on the hospital setup and operating rooms. McCarthy’s CIO Mike Oster says: “In a hospital setting, even seemingly simple decisions like where the equipment connections are located on the wall behind the bed, where a trashcan is located, how wide the gaps are between beds, or what furniture goes can be extremely important. In this project, we saved a significant amount of time making these decisions early, and avoiding going in circles or installing something that would need to be changed later.”13 The best part? McCarthy could secure the feedback prior to lifting a shovel.

As another example, Ford Motor Company uses HTC Vive headsets to connect executives across the world without leaving the chairs of their offices. Elizabeth Baron, Ford’s VR and advanced visual technology specialist, explains that members of the Australian team and executives in Michigan were virtually immersed in the same vehicle for over a half-hour period, even though they were located across the world from each other. This is one example that demonstrates the benefits of VR on remote collaboration and communication.14

Parting Thoughts

XR is rapidly evolving from a splashy tech gadget to a mature tool for the enterprise. Even though XR technologies are nascent with some technical challenges, companies have already been reaping the benefits by focusing on use-cases that circumvent the limitations. It is time for cutting-edge businesses, whether start-ups or established leaders, to begin exploring and adopting XR.

Luckily, these use cases are not restricted to engineers and designers. Just as designers can use XR to envision a product design in 3D, surgeons can use XR to explore a patient’s body and design a surgery before operating. Or, similar to how engineers test products in different simulations, industrial workers can train for hazardous situations with XR simulations. Check out our Healthcare post and follow this XR series to learn how industrial workers leverage XR. Or learn about Accenture Labs’ work perspectives and pilots in extended reality.

Contact the Accenture XR group or Accenture Labs to learn more.


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