Military and airline pilots who train on supercomputers and multimillion dollar simulators are proof that virtual training works.
Students at Detroit's Focus:HOPE program prepare for high-demand industrial jobs. The digital simulation techniques used at the center help students become proficient in programming and operating complex machine tools.
Glenn Johnson has been involved in the development of simulation based training modules.
Johnson works on a simulated production process for brake shoes for the Department of Defense.
The U.S. Army has a mission — to help America's industrial workforce learn new and complex skills better and faster than before. The Army's National Automotive Center (NAC) and a non-profit industrial team called Focus:HOPE are working on a virtual solution for machine tool training problems. The two groups are merging computer-aided design and computer-simulated virtual environments to create a new form of computer based instruction. But the ultimate goal of the Army NAC/Focus:HOPE project, however, is to make these virtual environments available to students who could run the programs on desktop PCs.
Dennis J. Wend, director of NAC, actively promotes the development of technologies that both military and commercial industries can use. Wend says that learning production skills in a virtual environment offers benefits that extend from the production floor to product maintenance, repair, and upgrading. "This," he says, "can heighten the Army's operational readiness, as well as improve product quality and reduce time-to-market for U.S. manufacturing firms. We will demonstrate that learning to program and operate complex factory equipment in a virtual environment can take less time, cost less, and involve far less risk than with conventional teaching methods."
The NAC selected Focus:HOPE, a non-profit organization with industrial training and education programs, to head a development team that includes Deneb Robotics, CNC Connection, and Cincinnati Machine.
The team is creating a virtual environment where trainees can see, by means of realistic computer graphics, exactly how complex machines operate and how to interact with them. Instead of being taught in a conventional classroom, students learn through the electronic equivalent of hands-on experience. They follow computergenerated guidelines and proceed at their own, individual paces. The level of competency gained through working in a realtime, 3D virtual environment is expected to make the transition to operating and maintaining actual machines on the factory floor natural.
At the heart of the project is a first-time merger of computergenerated simulations and their respective instructional modules. In this case, it involves a Cincinnati Maxim 630 machining station and its programmable controller. Merging simulations and instructional modules will link all the machines tool's functions plus the options for controlling them into one seamless, graphics-rich virtual environment.
"We believe this project will set a precedent and will use taxpayer money more effectively," says Wend. "Learning in a virtual environment can produce a more agile American workforce, one that can build better products at lower cost in less time and respond faster to changing customer needs, including our national defense needs. It can help displaced workers acquire the new skills they need to re-enter the workforce, and it can help employed workers qualify for better paying jobs."
All are winners
In the virtual environment, the student works step-by-step through the complete machining process, learning about all functions of the machine tool and its electronic controller. Because the process is interactive, the student learns by doing instead of merely observing and is challenged to think analytically. Learning is self-paced, with built-in confirmations of accomplishment. More importantly, however, the student works in total safety with an electronically simulated machine tool, controller, and product and is able to manipulate them in 3D — mistakes are made in virtual reality instead of on the production line.
Students also have the opportunity to explore and experiment to a degree not possible in a classroom or when working with actual machinery, and multiple scenarios promote understanding and retention. With the focused process, students concentrate on learning to operate the machine tool and its controller — not the module's software.
For the Army, learning in a virtual environment conforms to the concept of flexible, agile manufacturing, which is what it would need to draw upon in cases of extreme emergency or war. A rapid-response, agile manufacturing base is better prepared to meet an urgent demand for military hardware.
Direct training costs for Army personnel, contractors, and suppliers could also be lowered, along with indirect costs such as machine diversion, down-time, and interruptions to the production flow.
In addition to the projected benefits, this method of training capitalizes on investments already made by the Department of Defense and the Army in exploring, developing, and applying computerized modeling, simulation, and training for tactical operations and for equipment manufacturing, maintenance, and upgrading.
Virtual environment technologies are becoming standard tools for product design and production engineering. Because of this, industries can educate a broader base of people.
Cost savings for companies are also significant. Equipped with PCs, Focus:HOPE students (future manufacturing engineers) learn in realistic, realtime virtual environments normally reserved for users of computer workstations costing $50,000 to $100,000. Shops won't have to take production machine tools off-line for training purposes or expose expensive machines to accidental damage by first-time operators.
The NAC/ Focus: HOPE project also eliminates the need for conventional classrooms; users can acquire skills anytime and anywhere.
Who's who in the virtual pool
The U.S. Army National Automotive Center (NAC), headquartered in Warren, Mich., is part of the U.S. Army Tank/Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) and the Tank/Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC). The NAC works with industries and universities to develop automotive-related technologies that meet dual needs — products and manufacturing processes that can improve the performance, safety, and endurance of both military and civilian vehicles. At the same time, NAC works to reduce the costs of vehicle design, manufacturing, operation, and maintenance.
Focus:HOPE is a non-profit, human and civil rights organization that demonstrates how education and trainingpromote students' self-sufficiency, confidence, and marketability in the workplace. Its Center for Advanced Technologies, located in Detroit, provides industrial skills training/education and manufactures precision-machined parts for automakers and their suppliers as well as for the Department of Defense.
Deneb Robotics Inc. is a supplier of manufacturing simulation software in Troy, Mich. Deneb is providing 3D modeling and simulation of the Maxim 630 machine tool and its programmable controller.
CNC Connection Corp. in Howell, Mich., specializes in advanced manufacturing methods training. It is responsible for the computer-based learning module, student performance tracking, and documentation.
Cincinnati Machine in Cincinnati is furnishing technical expertise on the Maxim 630 machine tool and control panel.