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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

Simulation and Virtual Reality

Risky Job? Hire an Avatar!

Avatars Jack and Jill are realistic representations of human beings. They are being used to plan human work in facilities such as nuclear power plants.

Avatars Jack and Jill from Siemens‘ Tecnomatix portfolio are helping the U.S. energy industry minimize the amount of radiation its employees are exposed to at nuclear facilities. Such virtual test persons are also being used in the automotive and aerospace sectors.

Jack opens a door in a nuclear power plant. Inside the room is a defective pumping unit that forces cooling water through the plant's reactor core. Jack puts his toolbox down on the floor in front of the pump, reaches for a pipe wrench, and begins making repairs. After he turns the wrench several times and removes a cap, the reading on a radiation measuring device begins to rise alarmingly. However, Jack doesn't seem at all concerned by this. A few minutes later, he performs the same task as before while crouching on the other side of the unit. This time, the reading on the measuring device is comfortably located in the safe level.

Relaxed Work in Nuclear Plants

Jack does all his work in a very relaxed manner — and with good reason, since he is never really in danger. That's because Jack isn't a real person, but rather an avatar, a simulation of a human being. Jack “works” in a virtual nuclear power plant, where he tests the maintenance and repair operations that will later be carried out by real workers.

Such 3-D simulations of work in potentially dangerous areas are designed to reduce risks for human beings as much as possible. The simulations help energy companies adhere to the “As Low as Reasonably Achievable” (ALARA) safety principle, which has established itself in the U.S. and, more recently, in the European energy sector as well. “The U.S. energy companies that assisted us with our simulation development work are now testing the avatars in these new applications,” says Dr. Ulrich Raschke, Director of Human Simulation Technologies at Siemens in Michigan.

Model People for Different Cultures and Industries

Jack and his colleague, Jill, are biometrically correct models. Such models have been used since 1997 by engineers and designers in the automotive industry, the military sector, and the aerospace industry to help create ergonomically optimized work environments. They also help in the planning of work processes and in testing the user-friendliness of new products. The simulations created by Siemens are part of the company's Tecnomatix portfolio for industrial production planning. Tecnomatix, in turn, is part of Siemens' Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software systems.

Jack and Jill are more than just dull graphic figures. They have 68 joints and can perform 135 movements that correspond almost perfectly to the physical movement capabilities of the human body. Both are depicted as average body types common to the population in the regions where they are used. This explains why their Chinese versions are shorter than their North American ones. However, their physiques can also be varied to ensure that very short, tall, thin, or heavy people will later be able to work effectively in the environments depicted in the simulations.

Avoiding Injuries and Fatigue with Movement Programs and Algorithms

Data from scientific studies is used for analyses that answer such questions as: How much stress will a body be exposed to when lifting heavy objects? The results make it possible to predict the risk of injury and the likelihood of fatigue. A movement program developed jointly by Tecnomatix and the Humosim lab at the University of Michigan “propels” Jack and Jill through virtual factories. An algorithm for calculating radiation levels now makes it relatively easy to use this program to simulate work in a nuclear power facility. The algorithm was provided to Siemens by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an organization founded by U.S. power companies.

The benefits of virtual testing are obvious. Avatars enable companies to consider the human factor at the earliest stages of product development, assembly, and maintenance planning processes. Instead of building expensive and untested prototypes and making time-consuming and costly adaptations later on, avatars enable engineers to prevent design errors and avoid having to make extensive improvements. This not only saves money; it also improves the quality and safety of products — and speeds up their market launch.

Why Jack and Jill Work for Ford

Ford has been using Jack and Jill since 1998 to test assembly line work areas and vehicle models. Here, the avatars are enhanced by algorithms that calculate postures, movements, and stresses exerted on the body, using data based on years of observations. Ergonomic analyses are then used to calculate the risk of injury. Development engineers also want to know how well people will steer their vehicles, how easy the instrument panel is to operate, and what view of the road ahead the driver's seat will offer. To find out, they don immersive headsets that allow them to enter the 3-D world of avatars, as in a computer game.

Jack and Jill software from the Tecnomatix portfolio has also proved valuable in actual manufacturing operations. A few years ago, Ford's Ergonomics Lab found out with the help of this software that the installation of door weather stripping in certain models was difficult. Workers were tiring more quickly, their risk of injury had increased, and the stripping was often installed incorrectly.

After the problem was discovered, Ford engineers improved the stripping installation process for new models. This not only made assembly much easier; it also significantly enhanced quality. “Simulation software can help to substantially reduce manufacturing problems in the automotive industry,” says Raschke. “Virtual analyses are now a required step in the design process at Ford and other companies.”

Virtual Devices for Virtual People

Simulations at nuclear plants mark a new area for Tecnomatix. Ultimately, however, they're simply an extension of the simulations in the automotive and aerospace industries. Siemens has been working with EPRI on nuclear facility simulations since September 2010.

EPRI researchers developed an algorithm that determines radiation intensity by taking into account the material in question, the radioactive field, and any protective barriers that are present. This means that radiation levels can be precisely predicted for every spot in a room.

Siemens engineers installed the algorithm in the Jack and Jill program. The algorithm allows radiation intensity to be measured with a simulated radiation dose measuring device. The results are color-coded in a 3-D simulation. Here, red stands for dangerously high radiation, while green indicates non-harmful doses.

Virtual People in Outer Space

Siemens also added a Microsoft Kinect motion sensor camera, which is a familiar part of many game consoles. The Kinect records the movements of real people and transfers them to Jack and Jill. This makes it possible to practice exactly how work will be carried out within a nuclear facility before an actual assignment in order to minimize radiation exposure. “If all the radiation sources were known and all the physical structures were stable, it might even be possible to simulate cleanup work in Fukushima,” says Raschke.

The technology's potential extends far beyond nuclear power plants or radioactive waste storage facilities. Indeed, the earliest simulations of human beings in work environments were carried out in the 1960s and 1970s to study work in space. And in recent years, NASA has used Jack and Jill in simulations for assembling the Orion space capsule. “These days we get a lot of inquiries from both government and private space agencies that want to simulate human activity in space,” says Raschke.


Hubertus Breuer