Think of reality as the dial on an old-fashioned radio. On the left-hand end of the spectrum is the real environment. At the other end is the computer-powered, immersive world of virtual reality (VR). In between, as you adjust the dial, you can tune into augmented reality (AR), in which the real world is supplemented by digital information. For example, information about a building’s architecture can be augmented by knowledge of how people move inside it, thus opening the door to precise and dynamic crowd flow simulations of evacuations.
Simulation and Virtual Reality
Simulation: Bringing Reality to the Virtual World
From research and development to planning and production, products and processes are increasingly taking shape in the virtual world. One of the fundamental economic issues of our time, this transformation is largely based on the growing power of simulation technologies.
From Augmented Reality to the Virtual World
To the right of center on the dial, you can tune into “augmented virtuality” – environments that are overwhelmingly virtual, such as buildings, trains, and models of wind turbines or drilling platforms, which are supplemented by real-time images taken by technicians in the real-world. Across this continuum, scientists have been tuning into a steadily-growing spectrum of so-called “mixed realities,” in which elements of the real and virtual worlds are combined in varying ratios.
But it is at the far end of the spectrum – in the virtual world – that the potential for revolutionary competitive advantage for companies such as Siemens is taking shape. The reason for this is clear: Businesses that can test products in a virtual environment before they are actually built will save time and money while simultaneously increasing quality and flexibility. Siemens is ideally positioned to do this and to drive developments in automation and digital factory systems. Indeed, the company is developing not only highly sophisticated systems but also service models that are anchored in the virtual world.
Driven by the fact that ever more manufactured items are created in the virtual world, the digital transformation has become a fundamental economic factor. Digital technologies are revolutionizing business models, value chains, and organizational structures in almost all industries. For example, Pierre Audoin Consultants (PAC) predicts that demand for digital transformation software and IT services will grow by an average of 11.2 percent annually until 2017.
Virtual testing processes are a case in point. They have obvious advantages as compared with their real-world counterparts. regardless of whether they are based on the use of avatars, virtual product models, or model-based software, they enable companies to consider the human factor during the very early stages of product development, assembly, and maintenance, and to train people accordingly. Virtual systems also enable companies to eliminate a key development step. Instead of building expensive and untested prototypes and possibly having to make time-consuming and costly adaptations later on, companies can use advanced simulations to prevent design errors and the subsequent rectification of serious defects. This not only saves money but also improves the quality and safety of products, and speeds up their market launch.
Facility Planning in the Virtual World
The Balearic island of Majorca provides an example of the benefits of model-based software. Siemens software was used to develop the desalination plant at Alcudia, which generates around 14,000 cubic meters of drinking water every day. The facility also serves researchers as a case study for the construction and testing of an entire highly complex system in the virtual world. “If we are successful, it will be easy to transfer the system to other types of facilities such as wastewater treatment plants, pumping stations, and waterworks, or to other industries such as the oil, gas, pharmaceutical, and chemical sectors,” says Dr. Andreas Pirsing, an automation and process control engineer at Siemens.
Simulating Crowd Dynamics
Avoiding potential risks as large numbers of people move is another important application of simulation technology. Again and again, there are disasters to which people react in panic — whether it’s a firecracker at a sports stadium or a fire at an airport, nightclub or hotel. Together with his team, Dr. Wolfram Klein, a researcher at Siemens Corporate Technology (CT) in Munich, has developed a model that simulates crowd behavior. The system makes it possible to determine in advance when and where critical situations could arise and how they can be avoided or managed with the help of optimized building designs, information systems, and crowd management techniques.
Using computer programs, researchers can simulate the movements of large crowds consisting of tens of thousands of people. With the help of statistical methods, the software takes into account the effects of people’s age and degree of fitness on their walking behavior, as well as the interactions of individuals in groups.
This kind of information can be applied to virtually any environment affect by crowd dynamics. For example, rail car interiors can be designed in such a way that passengers can get in and out more quickly. Simulation systems designed to analyze and predict crowd flow dynamics are also well-suited for planning the logistics of events, infrastructures, and transportation systems. In the building technologies sector, crowd flow simulation can be applied to the optimization of fire protection solutions, among other things. What is more, researchers are studying how to adapt the technology to a range of emergency situations, such as earthquakes, storms, floods, and bombing attacks.
Digital technologies also help researchers to simulate the work steps associated with specific activities in order to maximize safety and comfort while reducing costs. Interestingly, solutions for work-related ergonomic challenges have been derived from systems that were originally developed for video games. For example, Microsoft’s Kinect sensor camera, which is familiar to users of games consoles, can record the movements of real-life people and transfer these movements to avatars.
Such avatars are helping to make manufacturing processes more ergonomic, and are now being used to reduce radiation exposure to workers at nuclear power plants. The avatars Jack and Jill from Siemens' Tecnomatix portfolio are a case in point.
Immersive Trainings with COMOS Walkinsde
Avatars are also used on oil drilling platforms and for training purposes. For instance, Siemens’ COMOS Walkinside 3D visualization software enables users to enter virtual models of facilities and its Immersive Training Simulator (ITS) enables course participants to move freely throughout a virtual-reality environment. They can also talk to one another and work together on a variety of scenarios. Thanks to ITS, for example, the exploration and production arm of TOTAL was able to train workers for its Pazflor platform while while the facility was still under construction. As a result, the platform was able to enter service two months earlier than originally planned.
Out-of-this-World Simulation Technology
Applications of simulation technologies extend far beyond nuclear power plants, radioactive waste storage facilities, and oil drilling platforms. Indeed, they play an especially crucial role in space travel – an area characterized by huge costs and risks. A notable example of this is the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity in August 2012, which was perhaps the most technologically challenging project in the history of NASA. The entire mission was developed, simulated, and tested using Siemens software.
Companies in the aerospace industry aren’t the only ones to realize that simulation software gives them a competitive edge. “We have 70,000 customers,” says Chuck Grindstaff, Head of Siemens PLM Software, which addresses a market that totals around $20 billion per year and is growing by five to seven percent annually. Grindstaff points out that PLM software helps customers cut costs and increase efficiency. One example of this is Samsung Electronics, where PLM technology has helped the company reduce the number of physical prototypes by 30 percent. It has also cut the error rate of the first production runs in half and reduced development times by 30 percent.
On the Road to a New Kind of Economy
As the power and precision of simulation technologies continues to increase , not only physical, but functional characterists are becoming part of the picture. For example, simulations are increasingly capable of taking data such as heat flows, fluid dynamics, radiation, material fatigue, and electromagnetic properties into account. Applications include not only the Mars Rover, but more down to earth products, ranging from gas turbines and hearing aids to cars, airplanes, and skyscrapers. These capabilities are gradually transforming our economy as ever more products are born, optimized, and tested in the virtual world.
This development could ultimately lead to a new kind of economy – one that is based on a wide variety of digital technologies that will create new challenges and opportunities for society. One of the people who recognized this development early on and received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2014 is renowned American computer scientist Jaron Lanier. A visionary and critic of the digital industry, he was one of the first people to coin and popularize the term “virtual reality.” For many years now, Lanier has played a leading role in the development of simulation technologies. But although he is enthusiastic about the technological possibilities of simulation, he also warns of its dangers. In his vision, the virtual world is becoming a place in which everyone can be successful in accordance with his or her personality. “Over the last couple of centuries, every time a technology has gotten better, it has put some people out of work. But it has also created new jobs. And the new jobs are usually more dignified and pleasant than those they replaced. Looking ahead, therefore, the question of human dignity is the only question that matters. It is the only purpose of developing technologies.,” he says.