Gamers are key to CAD's comeback
Photo credit: LINDSAY CHAPPELL
Remember the buzz 20 years ago about the dawning of virtual-reality automotive engineering?
No reason why you should. It flopped back then.
Despite the 1990s hoopla over 3-D computer-aided design systems that could help engineers see factory lines that hadn't yet been constructed or catch chassis design flaws before prototypes were built, there was a dirty secret to the technology: Computers weren't good enough to make it all work as envisioned, so the market quietly fizzled.
But now, it is back in full force, virtual-reality vendors say, thanks to help from an unlikely source - video gamers.
The past decade of consumer demand from young gamers for high-quality products through Xbox, PlayStation, GameCube and Wii, with high-definition animation, realistic motion and huge requirements for data storage, pushed software designers and computer makers into a new level of computer capabilities.
High-capacity graphics boards and the exponential growth of computer memories to support them helped rejuvenate the auto industry's computer-aided design, or CAD, market, says Gary Brincat, who directs automotive business development for virtual system supplier ESI North America. ESI is demonstrating the new-generation technology at the seminars.
The systems now being gobbled up by automakers and engineering firms can perform feats worthy of a 16-year-old's copy of Resistance 3. Engineers can follow a simulated vehicle moving down a simulated assembly line, reach into the car to remove a wire harness, take the harness apart and examine the wires, install a part, remove a bolt, measure an imaginary worker's back strain and monitor an animated forklift dropping off parts in the background while the next vehicle comes onto the assembly line.
"Companies loved the concept of the technology when it first appeared, but the hardware we had then just wasn't enough to get the job done," Brincat says. "You could watch what was happening, but you couldn't interact with it. Until computers got a lot more capable in the past few years, you couldn't reach into the simulation and move things around and fix issues."
The new wave of CAD systems enables vehicle engineers to identify and correct design problems in a matter of hours - not days or weeks.
"And it's all less expensive now," Brincat says. "An engineer can do all this with an ordinary consumer-grade laptop now, instead of a $40,000 desk computer. You can display it on an ordinary big screen TV for the review process.
"We have gamers to thank for all this."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.