Today’s Manufacturers Are Adopting Mixed Reality and 3D Printing With Metal

The technologies are helping Airbus, General Electric, and other companies become more efficient

26 February 2018

While many manufacturers are installing sensors on their equipment to make it more intelligent, others are adopting some of today’s cutting-edge technologies, like augmented-reality systems, virtual-reality headsets, and 3D printers using new materials. Read how the aerospace and automotive industries and others are transforming their operations and improving productivity.

SMARTGLASSES FOR TECHNICIANS

Building an airplane involves hundreds of complicated manufacturing processes. One is installing cabin seats. Airbus of Toulouse, France, partnered with Accenture to develop an augmented-reality wearable system for technicians so they can mark where the seats go, down to the millimeter, and install them faster, as you’ll see in the video above.

The Vuzix smartglasses have a camera that scans bar codes so the installer can see the specific cabin plan and details about the order, and view the marking zone. They also feature a screen that displays AR navigation icons. When the mark has been made, the system checks its location to validate the operation. Installers interact with the technology using simple voice commands.

“We were surprised at how much time we saved,” Cédric Gardon, a technical manager for Airbus flight-test installation, says in an article on the Airbus website. “The operation used to require three people and three days. Now it requires one single operator and six hours.”

It is the first time wearable technology is being used on the final assembly line of a major aircraft manufacturer, according to Vuzix.

Related: Special Report: Digital Senses

ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING FOR METAL PARTS

Better known as 3D printing, additive manufacturing has played a major role for many years in manufacturing and prototyping parts. But in November, General Electric took things to a new level when it unveiled a 3D printer that uses a laser and a powder bed to make metal parts. The largest printer of its kind, according to GE Reports, the machine is capable of printing parts as large as 1 meter in diameter. It fuses together thin layers of metal powder with its 1-kilowatt laser.

The scalable technology allows the printer to make jet engine structural components and parts for single-aisle aircrafts, Mohammad Ehteshami told GE reports. He ran GE Additive, a new business unit that builds and sells 3D printers.

The Proceedings of the IEEE published a special report in April on new types of additive manufacturing technologies used for radio-frequency components such as antennas, microwave circuits, and satellites. These included electron beam melting and selective laser melting to build all-metal parts without the use of machining tools. Proceedings also reported that research institutions and companies are investigating how to apply 3D printing techniques in the manufacturing of all-metal waveguide components used in satellite communications and navigation and earth observation systems.

Related: The 3D Gigabot Prints Large-Scale Items, Like Parts for Airplanes and Prosthetics

VIRTUAL-REALITY HEADSETS FOR QUALITY CONTROL

Car manufacturers including BMW, Ford, and General Motors are using VR technology to test design plans and evaluate safety features at an early phase of the process. Data is displayed on a monitor or a large projection screen.

Designers and engineers at Ford, for example, wear a VR headset to become immersed in the computer-generated graphics of a vehicle’s interior and exterior. They can evaluate such things as the placement of controls and the quality of the design.

Other car companies including GM use the cave automatic virtual environment, in which projectors are directed to four walls of a room-size cube. Every GM program, vehicle, and platform uses VR, says Joe Guzman, engineering group manager at the company’s Virtual Reality Center

“VR has enabled us to shorten the vehicle development process in many ways,” Guzman says in an ASME interview.  “It’s a validation of what they are seeing in the physical world translated correctly from what they had done in math on a computer model.”

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