Virtual-Reality Factories (and Missiles) Take Shape at Raytheon

Reposted from by Laura Putre, October 3, 2016

Deep in the desert campus of Raytheon Missile Systems, a black-walled room called the CAVE is geeked out with the latest Hollywood studio and gaming technology: five stereoscopic 3-D projectors, a supercomputer with conversion software, a retractable ceiling and giant viewing screens. There’s no Johnny Depp or Pokemon in sight, though.

The custom-built equipment, part of RMS’s Immersive Design Center, is used to configure new plants and redesign old ones. Viewers in Oculus goggles can rearrange work stations in a prototype factory or, for product design, walk inside a virtual missile, measuring, re-measuring and measuring some more before anything gets built.

With the CAVE (the acronym stands for CAVE Advanced Virtual Environment), “you can be inside a circuit card, you can be inside a battery,” says Kendall Loomis, the design center manager, who oversees a team of six, give or take. Users who are more game-savvy forgo the goggles and view a model from different angles with a video game system controller.

The center’s high-tech furnishings also include a set of 3-D printers, a laser scanner that can create a virtual 3-D model of a plant facility in a few hours, and two motion-capture suits that, with the help of infrared cameras, can track workers’ movements as they perform tasks—to anticipate ergonomic problems, for instance, or map ways to make a process more efficient.

Located in the company’s manufacturing hub, the immersion center is a real workhorse, says Bob Erickson, advanced manufacturing director at RMS.

“The technology itself isn’t really unique,” Erickson says. “What’s unique is the way we’re using it”—meaning that it’s enlisted for lots of roll-up-your-sleeves tasks, rather than being in a more visible spot that wows clients but doesn’t get much everday use.

The visualization breaks down walls, says Loomis. Instead of everyone “designing their widget and getting together in a conference room to look at it on a Powerpoint slide,” a cross-section of people can come together to discuss and critique a project in lots of different stages and move things around.

“It’s not just the mechanical engineers,” she says. “We’re bringing in the thermal guys and the electrical guys and the industrial engineers. We’re bringing in senior assemblers and testers on the factory floor who are starting to say, ‘That’s really pretty, but where does the torque wrench go?’ We’ll bring in our health and safety folks who say, ‘I can stand in five different places and I don’t see exit signs.’

“We can say, ‘Here are our options,’ before we’re pouring concrete and tearing down walls.”

Fitting It All in

Five years ago, Kim Ernzen, RMS’s vice president of operations, enlisted the CAVE to configure the interior layout of Raytheon’s new missile integration facility in Huntsville, Ala. Before a single beam was laid, her team took the plant’s working 2-D blueprints, created a 3-D model and started laying in the equipment virtually—“the work benches, the stations, everything,” says Ernzen. In the design, cranes were replaced with automated guided vehicles (AVGs) to transport very heavy missiles between work stations down long hallways, docking and unloading the missile at each station throughout the plant.

Hundreds of people—industrial engineers, factory workers, contractors—were in on the design process. And likewise, they made hundreds of changes, from relocating or adding exit signs to reconfiguring six test bays that would not fit into the designated space.

“We could only fit five, so the program manager said, ‘Just turn everything 90 degrees and it can extend out this way and we’ll have plenty of room,’” Ernzen recalls. But in the new configuration the aisles weren’t long enough, “which impacted the hardware, and literally changed the entire factory floor.”

“The old way of doing this was literally paper dolls on a tabletop and cutouts,” Ernzen adds. “”So it was very powerful for us to figure out how all the equipment fit in the right way.”

Fifty-seven virtual iterations later, Raytheon broke ground on the new facility.

Tracking cameras in the CAVE can redraw a model to an individual viewer’s perspective. For the minutiae of parts design, the cameras are capable of zooming in to three times actual size.

“Now you can start talking yellow wires and red boxes—you don’t have to be an expert in the technology to talk about it,” says Loomis. “When we bring in our lead factory folks, that’s what they really like. ‘Now it’s an environment where I can talk about the parts and I can contribute.’”

On one of RMS’s more “mature” missile designs, an electrical wire harness that carries signals and power through the missile guidance section, was due for a redesign after 40 years in use. The supplier that was in charge of redesigning the harness was able to connect to the RMS team with a portable, non-stereoscopic version of the CAVE.

“Every Tuesday night they would send us the latest drawing, and every Wednesday morning we would pull it up in our CAVE, and connect to their CAVE back east, and we would talk about it together,” says Loomis. “The supplier said that was the first time he had ever felt like they were a partner in the design effort with us.”

With the new technology, the redesign finished 40% ahead of schedule and 40% under budget, says Loomis.

Hotshot Scanner

Loomis jokes that she’d like to use the laser scanner for her house—it would make updating her homeowner’s insurance so much quicker. It can ‘see’ through walls, “so you can figure out what is your piping infrastructure, your air handling infrastructure, and you can lay it together and it stitches all the pixels” that convey space, depth and color.

The scanner got a workout with a new Tuscon facility nicknamed “Hotshot” where Stinger missiles are refurbished, Griffin missiles built and a product still in the engineering and design phase called Small Diameter Bomb II assembled. Test chambers to power up and test the warheads are located down long hallways at either end of the facility, to keep any explosions away from people. (After connecting the missile to the test equipment, the test engineer comes back to the main building to perform the test.)

When the Hotshot facility was complete, Loomis’ team laser-scanned it to make sure that “whether what we ended up with was what we asked for.” The scan revealed that the hallways to the test chambers, instead of being straight as planned, actually had a 2-degree arc.

“When we ran the numbers, there was a strong probability we could have crashed a robot or skimmed it and tipped the missile off of the robot,” she says. “So we were actually able to reprogram AGVs to account for the curvature.”

RMS is now investing in some smaller laser-scanning technology to scan missiles. “A lot of these missiles are 40 and 50 years old, the drawings are old, all the subject matter experts have retired,” says Loomis. The scan allows RMS to remotely show suppliers what they’re working with and what the issues might be.

Suiting up

The Immersion Center’s motion capture apparatus has the most direct link to the movie world. “It’s the same technology as the green screen,” says Loomis. “So we have infrared cameras up top and down low, and they track to the markers on the suit. Just as Johnny Depp jumps off the deck of the pirate ship, we can be in here mimicking an assembly flow, walking a factory.”

The second motion tracking suit doesn’t have markers. Called an inertial suit, “it has wires inside of it and electronic devices (IMUs) that measure body movements. It’s used to “collect” motion out on the shop floor. “I can take it out to the factory, put it on an assembler, and have them assemble and test a guidance section,” says Loomis. Once the data is collected, “I can come back in here and do human factors analysis on it, and see if there are any stresses and strains on the body. Are they pinching or moving too much in the same direction?”

Her team can build an avatar from that motion and put it into a factory environment or virtual world.

From collected motion data, Loomis’ team staged a factory with 21 errors in it—from missing shoe safety straps and signs to erroneous safety tape on the floor. “It’s the video game kind of feeling,” she says. They’re now working on virtual reality trainers for new recruits to fix the circuit cards in war fighters.

“Taking a human and putting them into that virtual environment is really the next phase of all that virtual technology,” she says. “And it combines the wearables and a lot of that software piece with our core virtual technology.”