Surrounded by curious onlookers, Dennis Abmeier moves around the room, slowly but surely feeling his way around. Two joysticks, one in each hand, seem to be keeping him stable, and he has an oversized black headset on covering his eyes. Behind Dennis is a wall-mounted screen displaying everything he is seeing through the headset in real time. Dennis, who works in Volkswagen Group IT, is fully immersed in the virtual world of the production hall of the ŠKODA plant in Mladá Boleslav where he has arranged to meet up with Malte from Volkswagen Brand Logistics and Mathias Synowski from Group Logistics.
Group Digital Factory working group
Just a few minutes earlier, the three of them attended a meeting of the Group Digital Factory working group. They are members of the Digital Realities team and the Group Digital Factory working group led by Frank Jelich. “Our aim is to ensure that employees, brands and sites are better networked by deploying the latest innovative developments,” says Jelich. All 12 brands and 120 sites are represented in the working group by various experts. The working group enables its members to exchange ideas and information across all the brands in order to ensure that the Volkswagen Group is always on the right course for the future. “We therefore benefit from close cooperation between the best experts from the entire Group,” says Jelich.
Digital Reality Hub
Dennis Abmeier, Mathias Synowski and Malte Hedemann are demonstrating the exact role that virtual reality (VR) will play in the Volkswagen Group’s factory of the future. To do so, they bid farewell to their colleagues in Brunswick and headed (virtually) for Mladá Boleslav, hundreds of kilometers away. Although they are actually in two different rooms, in the virtual world they are standing directly opposite each other and interacting naturally with their surroundings in the form of a so-called “avatar” – a 3D graphical character assigned to each user.
The whole set-up is possible thanks to the new Volkswagen Digital Reality Hub, which will combine and host all existing Group VR applications, participants and tools on one platform in the future. Real locations, for example production and logistics halls, can be recreated 1:1 and used, irrespective of whichever site users are at, for simulating production planning processes, so-called “3P workshops”. The technology is expected to increase efficiency, firstly by enabling users to quickly and inexpensively work out the outcome of optimization measures as part of the 3P workshops and secondly on account of the fact that no physical components are involved. First of all, this saves individuals time and second of all saves the costs that would otherwise be incurred for travel, training materials and machinery. Mathias Synowski, VR user from Group Logistics, adds: “We can take part in workshops at other sites virtually or get support from experts from other brands virtually when implementing optimizations. It makes it much easier to work as a team every day and saves us a lot of time.”
What you need for VR
To delve into the world of VR, you need a 3D headset (in this case HTC Vive) with two integrated screens and sensors as well as a computer, which enables networking via the Internet and carries out the necessary software calculations for the simulation. A five-by-five meter action room is defined overhead with the help of another pair of sensors. The user perceives the boundary limits in the VR world as a transparent grid and, using two hand-held controllers, completes actions by simply moving and pressing buttons.
Analysis & optimization
In the VR experience, Dennis is standing next to a suspended vehicle production line. Next to him is a standard shelf equipped with components and a table with a cordless drill on. Dennis picks up the components required for the simulated process step with one hand and reaches for the powertool with the other. In order to be able to reach and assemble the necessary objects he needs to take two small steps, bend his knee slightly and rotate his upper body. Together, Dennis and Malte analyze the sequence of movements and discuss possible optimization measures. These are aimed at improving cyclical procedures and occupational health and safety, preventing sources of errors and optimizing ergonomic work processes as well as gripping distances and routes.
Man and machine
Heike Münstermann from the Strategy and Factory Concepts division oversees the introduction of digital technology in the Group Digital Factory working group from the pilot phase right through to use in series production. For her, people are at the heart of this process. “Virtual reality and augmented reality will have a huge impact on how we work in the future, and as such there will be new health issues for us to consider. The systems for assessing physical and psychological stress need to be further developed for these applications. The cognitive processing of innovative technology also needs to be assessed,” says Münstermann. As a result, she examines new technology in an application-oriented way, and provides specialist departments and, where applicable, even manufacturers with direct feedback.
For Malte Hedemann, virtual reality provides “the perfect conditions for cooperation across all brands and sites.” Dennis Abmeier adds: “Exchanging knowledge is just as important as pooling knowledge. All employees have access to existing VR elements as well as existing knowledge via the Volkswagen Digital Reality Hub. VR technology is playing an increasingly important role as its use becomes more widespread in the Consumer division. We therefore need a centralized platform in order to enable the individual business divisions to quickly test out and implement new use cases.”
After the VR meeting, Dennis and Malte return to the real world to answer questions from journalists and colleagues. And there’s no real reason why this kind of exchange couldn’t also be done through VR in the future. However, no matter how huge the potential of VR is, you still need to meet up in real life to enjoy a cup of coffee together.
The user moves through the real world and receives information including tips and instructions regarding real applications and processes through so-called data glasses or smart glasses.
The computer-assisted enhancement of human perception through data and models, e.g. holograms, is integrated into the user’s real surroundings. A popular example of augmented reality at work is the Pokémon Go app.
In virtual reality applications, the user is detached from their real surroundings which are then replaced with audio-visual simulations. The technology actually dates back as far as the 19th century. Researchers at NASA and the entertainment industry have been mainly responsible for driving development.