Looking back at some of Damen’s activities over the last few years, it is clear that technological innovation is one of the major driving forces shaping the company’s future. Notable recent examples include 3D printing, self-righting lifeboats, electric dredge pumps and Hardware-in-the-Loop simulations. Two rapidly emerging technologies that can be added to this list are Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). Björn Mes, Damen’s Technical Specialist VR/AR, is investigating the potential of VR and AR in the shipbuilding and conversion arena.
First of all, however, let us have a brief recap of the defining characteristics of these two technologies. “VR places a person into a digitally created, virtual location,” explains Mr Mes. “Their physical presence is simulated, and they can use virtual reality equipment such as headsets and gloves to move around and interact with this virtual environment.
“AR digitally enhances our regular ‘view’ of a situation,” he continues. “It uses a mobile device such as a smartphone, tablet or head-mounted display that detects its position relative to the real-world environment around it. Elements of the resulting live view are then ‘augmented’ by computer-generated input. These AR images of real-time and real-world situations can be used for physical space measurement and environmental recognition.”
Starting off with VR, how can this be applied to the shipbuilding industry? “Well, apart from the more obvious sales aspects – showing clients what a finished product will look like – VR is a really good way to finalise design parameters before construction starts. Decisions can be made that are difficult to imagine from a 2D or 3D drawing, but by actually walking through the virtual ship you can’t miss details such as sightlines, clearance or headroom. This will make construction far more efficient.”
Furthermore, it is possible for multiple users to simultaneously access the simulated VR environment. This creates endless opportunities for interactions within a virtual ship. “Whether it is designers, engineers, project managers or end-users, the fact that several people can experience the virtual ship at the same time is one of the main advantages of this. And, don’t forget, these people can all be in different locations in the physical world,” he continues.
"There is also great potential for training and maintenance purposes – especially for complex one-off vessels. You can simulate the entire ship, rather than just a small section, without having to build any physical structures or components."
Such simulated training platforms also have a beneficial effect on costs: “A VR simulation is certainly cheaper than the type of physical models that are commonly used by ship owners.” He uses the Dutch Navy’s purchase of cranes to illustrate his point. “These cranes are installed on board their vessels, but one is land-based and used for training. In a case like this, using VR to meet training goals is a far more cost-efficient method.” Another advantage is that training locations can be located anywhere – on a plane or a ship, for example – meaning that new crews can even train for operations during deployment to the new vessel.
Still with naval applications in mind, Damen is currently investigating the effectiveness of VR technology by creating a virtual model of a Royal Netherlands Navy Holland Class OPV at Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding (DSNS) in Vlissingen. “Using a system that takes CAD drawings to generate a VR environment, we have created the control room, slipway and the starboard steer engine room.” Impressive as the results are – it is sub-millimetre accurate – the technology is advancing rapidly. “The physical space in which a user operates can soon be as large as 10 x 10 metres with consumer hardware, meaning that the virtual space can be navigate more easily. This is is increasing all the time, however, as hard- and software progresses. Admittedly, our work at DSNS is for a very specific target audience, but the skills that we are gaining in the naval sector can easily be transferred to any other maritime industry.”
Considering AR, and put into the context of the shipbuilding world, Mr Mes is enthusiastic about the potential that it could have for Damen. “For us in the shipbuilding industry, AR could be even bigger than VR. It is much faster than traditional methods because it ensures easier access to relevant data from other systems like ERP, PLM, PDM and MM, while presenting this data in the context of what you are looking at. This results in more reliable updates from drawings during the construction process.”
Hands-free AR operations
Crucially, the two techniques of AR and VR complement each other very well: “VR is good for engineering, training and sales. AR is suitable for all of these aspects, plus additional applications in actual day-to-day operations. It enables straightforward communication between a technician working on a vessel anywhere in the world and engineers in an office environment. This includes preventive maintenance in particular, and augmented warnings are a very efficient way to improve safety and quality control.”
Using an engine room of a vessel at sea as an operational example, he explains how AR will be able to be used to further develop Damen’s existing preventative maintenance operations: “A technician walks through the engine room; he is wearing AR-glasses. A pump lights up in his augmented field of view. This has been triggered by prognostics, which informs the operator that this component, which usually lasts for 10,000 running hours, has now reached 9,000 hours. The on-board maintenance management systems inform us via the AR glasses that the replacement part is on board. The glasses offer the technician help by showing the procedure step by step. When the technician hits a snag he calls onshore specialists who guide him through the preventative maintenance process.”
Just how advanced is this technology? “VR and AR are both not really user-friendly enough at this stage,” he notes. “The systems have their quirks; for example, it can be confused by lighting. And, at this stage, the conversion from CAD to VR is time consuming. Most AR glasses still have difficulty with knowing where you are in a space and what you are looking at.”
Despite these current drawbacks, Damen is developing its modus operandi to incorporate VR and AR technology. “We are looking at how we can apply it to our own work processes in the production halls and engineering and design offices. Cooperation will also be paramount – we will need to collaborate with our suppliers to get the data that we require to integrate components into the VR simulation. We will also be working closely with research institutes and students because they are at the very forefront of these developments.”
“The future is not here yet,” adds Mr Mes. “For full-fledged applications, we will be using VR effectively within two to five years, but the first uses might come even sooner. And AR is a lagging a bit further behind; we are looking at two to seven years, depending on the complexity of the application for that. There is still a long way to go.”
"The future may not be here yet, but Damen will be ready when it arrives."
Want to know more or discuss your own findings and ideas about Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in shipbuilding?
Royal Netherlands Navy Holland Class OPV
Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding (DSNS)