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Students study virtual engineering at New Mexico State University

Imagine sitting down at a computer, putting on a set of goggles and finding yourself at the wheel of a prototype car -- a car you can customize while you're driving it.

New Mexico State University graduate students (left to right) Atipol Kanchanapiboon and Arun Muthaiyan, with industrial engineering assistant professor Joe Cecil, demonstrate the use of virtual reality for designing a product in the university's Virtual..

Joe Cecil, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at New Mexico State University, said major U.S. companies already are using this virtual reality technology to design and build their products. Now, through Cecil's work, New Mexico State students are learning the technology and readying themselves to enter a workplace where "virtual engineering" is becoming commonplace.

Chrysler, Ford, GM, John Deere, Honda, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and NASA are only a few of the companies that are using virtual reality technology to compare designs for products and study ways to build them. Virtual reality reduces the need to build physical prototypes and lets designers and manufacturers identify problems quickly and at reduced cost, Cecil said.

"With virtual reality, you have the power to change the dimensions and shape of a design and study the overall impact of your changes. Say you're designing a car, you can bring a customer in and let them virtually sit in and drive it. While they're in it, they can change the position of the controls on the dash and move the seats around to see if they like them better," he said.

A virtual environment allows engineers and personnel who are involved with manufacturing, testing and service of a product to participate in the design process from the beginning. Ideas that are not practical can be discarded early in the design process, letting designers discover 'downstream' problems early, he said.

Cecil said a long-term goal of his work at New Mexico State is to develop techniques that will let engineers use software to manufacture products at distant factories that would have little or no human supervision.

"Virtual reality and the Internet could allow us to design, plan and manufacture products from a distance, by communicating with remote plants through computers. This process is called 'distributed collaborative manufacturing.'" he said.

"The short-term focus is on distributed planning and process design. Designing the process to build something becomes complex when the people and factories involved are no longer co-located and use different software tools," he added.

Using a $374,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Cecil, with the help of students Arun Muthaiyan and Atipol Kanchanapiboon, is designing several new "virtual reality test beds" -- virtually reality programs that simulate the building of a product. In a separate project, they also are designing a satellite assembly environment for the U.S. Air Force.

Students at New Mexico State will use the test beds as learning tools. In addition, they will work on group projects with students at Pennsylvania State University and the Institute of Technology and Superior Studies in Monterrey, Mexico. In these projects they will mimic a real- world scenario, using virtual reality and the Web to come up with plans to build various parts.

With part of the NSF grant, and with funds from the university's industrial engineering department, Cecil is designing three new courses: Manufacturing Processes will introduce students to virtual reality concepts; Integrated Manufacturing will focus on integrated design and manufacturing; and Virtual Engineering, a graduate-level course, will introduce more advanced process modeling concepts. Cecil's Virtual Enterprise Engineering Laboratory is equipped with virtual reality equipment, sensors and computers for use by students in the courses.

Under the NSF grant, Cecil and his students also will teach public school students about virtual reality technology, bringing them to the laboratory for tours and workshops this summer.

Derek Powell, a senior in mechanical engineering, is working with Cecil on the design of a test bed to study how to assemble microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), machines the size of a dust mite for use in medical sensors, computer chips and small satellites. Powell said the work has given him experience he would not be able to get otherwise.

"Now, if I go to industry and they ask if I have experience with virtual reality I'll be able to say yes. As far as assembly is concerned, I think virtual reality is going to be a great cost saver. You're going to be able to draw your machine and put it together in a virtual world, saving time and money," he said.

Photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/cecil_joe.jpg.
CUTLINE: New Mexico State University graduate students (left to right) Atipol Kanchanapiboon and Arun Muthaiyan, with industrial engineering assistant professor Joe Cecil, demonstrate the use of virtual reality for designing a product in the university's Virtual Enterprises Engineering Laboratory. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Jack King
April 16, 2002