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Old-school tool supplier harnesses 3D and virtual reality tech

A venerable Massachusetts precision tool supplier looks at 3D and virtual reality and sees a new way to improve customer service.

Methods Machine Tools Inc. has delivered manufacturing equipment and corresponding production processes to its industrial customers for nearly six decades.

Its approximately 300 workers create precision machine tools and solutions, providing both the machinery itself as well as the engineering, automation, parts and services that support its clients' production needs.

Despite all that experience, however, Methods had limits on how much detail it could provide on the complex manufacturing components and production proposals it builds for clients, said IT director David Pudvah.

The engineering team could present computerized plans for new manufacturing equipment and the corresponding production processes. Methods could even produce prototype components. However, computerized renderings were flat. And prototypes -- already costly and time-consuming to create -- couldn't be adjusted easily or quickly as design proposals changed.

But IT saw an opportunity to do better, by leveraging 3D and virtual reality and exploring how to deploy augmented reality as well.

"I'm taking what the gamers and the artists are doing to present 3D data in the manufacturing industry," said Michael Kaminski, an application engineer who spearheads Methods' customer training and innovative presentation tools.

I'm taking what the gamers and the artists are doing to present 3D data in the manufacturing industry.
Michael Kaminskiapplication engineer, Methods Machine Tools

Augmented and virtual reality technology is moving into the enterprise. In fact, Forrester Research in a September 2016 report named AR/VR technology as one of top emerging technologies to watch in the next five years, noting that it along with the internet of things and intelligent agents "will blend the digital and physical, further elevating customer expectations."

Use case for 3D and virtual reality, AR

Methods, though, is already capitalizing on the trend.

"Virtual and augmented reality helps us get across any kind of engineering idea we're working on for customers," Pudvah said. "It's a way for clients to conceptualize what we're really trying to make."

Methods uses CAMplete Solutions Software products and Sketchfab (a website used to display and share 3D content online) to show customers 3D images of the products and solutions that Methods is developing for them.

These 3D technologies enable customers to examine products as if they were physical objects, Kaminski said. Moreover, the technology offers views that are difficult to offer even in real life. He explained that customers use their own computers and smartphones to view these 3D images and they can use the technology (which is based on WebGL) to get views inside the actual objects. For example, a customer can view the interior webbing of a custom component to determine if it meets its needs.

"You can't show that in real life unless you cut the piece in half," Kaminski said.

Oculus view

Meanwhile, at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in mid-2016, Methods introduced its VR technology capability, which allows customers to view products in a virtual world.

A customer can view what Methods calls "cells," which are manufacturing products such as equipment or production robots that the company is creating for the customer. The customer, wearing an Oculus headset, can see how the cell would fit on the actual manufacturing floor. They could view it from different angles, too, to determine if it would fit or whether adjustments need to be made as well as to get a real-life feel for how the cell would operate when production starts.

Kaminski and Pudvah said this technology enables Methods to more quickly deliver products to the customized specifications -- a value-add for clients and a differentiator in the marketplace for the Sudbury, Mass.-based company.

"It's a sales tool," Pudvah says.

Methods is also developing augmented reality capabilities, which Kaminski said "will provide an alternative capture for those who need a physical, real-world environment." A Methods customer, for example, could stand in front of an actual machine on the manufacturing floor and then see via a headset how a new component would fit into and interact with the existing equipment.

"This provides a perception that is as close to the real thing as possible without getting VR sick," Kaminski said, citing a legitimate concern over so-called simulator sickness.

Skilling up for a 3D and virtual reality future

Industrial companies are on the leading edge of AR and VR adoption, said 451 Research analyst Ian Hughes.

"It's natural for engineers to want to see what they're doing, and understanding and visualizing something in as rich a way as possible is important to them," he said.

There are barriers to implementing this technology, however, Hughes and other analysts said. Enterprise IT departments need to develop the expertise in the technologies themselves. They also must develop the content to feed into the AR and VR systems as content developed for 2D computer screens won't do the job. And they must integrate the new technology with back-end systems.

Pudvah, however, said the challenges around 3D and virtual reality/augmented reality technologies are coming down. He acknowledged that the conversations around this technology would have been different two or three years ago, but he said today companies like his can use hosted solutions that lower the barrier to entry.

"You've got all these pieces outside you can tap into," he said, adding that developing in-house skills is a necessity although Kaminski took on that task himself.

To support its move into AR and VR, Kaminski founded MULTIAXIS LLC. MULTIAXIS provides CAMplete product support for Methods customers, and it provides AR and VR services to the Methods engineering group. Kaminski, who is owner of MULTIAXIS as well as an employee of Methods, says the new company serves as the innovation arm to develop use cases for augmented and virtual reality capabilities.

The biggest challenge now, Pudvah said, is marketing and branding this technology to Methods customers to ensure they're getting the maximum value.

Next Steps

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