VR Headset for Truck Development: “The Potential is Huge”

KION Group is increasingly relying on a digital testing process for developing its industrial trucks. The trucks undergo comprehensive checks and testing, such as 3D simulations, temperature calculations and rendered endurance tests, before they go into production. Now the next evolutionary phase is here with the Virtual Reality solution IC.IDO, which turns a VR headset into an everyday tool, not only in product development but also when collaborating with customers.

In these times of artificial intelligence and Virtual Reality (VR), many supposed certainties are being put to the test. Previously, for example, it was taken as a given that a prototype would first need to be built before it could be tested. But this logic no longer applies.

Jan-Christian Rehder sits in jeans and a white shirt in a darkened office. His face is covered by a large VR headset. The engineer is using it to orient himself in the virtual environment, to get a feel for how the forklift truck looks in the physical world. However, the only parts of the heavy-duty forklift truck that actually physically exist are the armrests and a driver’s seat, which is mounted on a gray metal structure in the office. All other components of the forklift truck only exist virtually. Rehder uses VR to assess the current design status from a technical standpoint. This allows him (and the truck) to move around in the virtual space and to assess the forklift truck from a wide range of perspectives.

So Realistic, It’s Like Having the Truck in Front of You

“We create virtual models of industrial trucks and virtual environments , which are so realistic that they allow us, for example, to accurately assess packaging and ergonomics, before a physical prototype is built,” explains Rehder. He has been working for the KION Group in Product Development for ten years. As one of the first “VR Key Users”, Rehder has the task of exploring some of the potential applications for Virtual Reality technology at KION. Some ideas are for the future, but many are already a reality—and the potential is huge. “Those who invest a lot in VR, will ultimately get a lot out of it,” asserts Rehder.

A new product development process has been established within KION Group’s Industrial Trucks & Services (KION ITS) segment, with the aim of steering the potential of the technology in the right direction: Stefan Hafner, Senior Director for Product Development (counterbalanced forklift trucks) is playing a key role in embedding the use of “digital mockups” (DMUs) throughout the Group. Before a physical prototype of a truck is even built, its DMU is inspected in the Virtual Reality environment by various departments and specialist teams. Going forward, this process is intended to apply throughout the Group and for all KION Group brands, something that Stefan Hafner and his team see as a logical progression. They consider the approximate representation of the physical world in VR to be just as groundbreaking as the jump from 2D to 3D. “It is the next logical step,” says Hafner. “The switch from 2D to 3D took some time, but ultimately led to a paradigm shift. The shift from 3D to VR is the next step.” Customers of the KION Group stand to benefit from this evolution.

New Applications: Virtual Reality for Production and Service

KION ITS relies on the IC.IDO software solution from ESI Group for the virtual test loops. The software works according to the following principle: Truck models are constructed digitally in a 3D construction software. This CAD data is then exported into the virtual software environment. The data is then used to create digital mockups, i.e. realistic models, within a virtual environment. In the long term, it will then be possible, with the use of DMUs, to carry out optimizations within the VR environment, which would previously have taken much more work in practice. This means that many insights that are typically reached working with physical prototypes can now be gained far earlier in the process.

This is an amazing change but, according to Jan Rehder, this is only the beginning of a trend that will spread to many other areas, including Industrial Engineering, for example. “In the future, it could also be possible to construct new assembly lines virtually to begin with, in order to make any possible optimizations in advance,” says Rehder. He adds that the technology could also be used in Service and Aftersales. “How do I repair something? What’s the best way to replace something? IC.IDO is also an excellent tool for answering questions like this,” says Rehder.

VR Makes Customer Requirements a Reality

Tjark Rulfs knows what it means to cater to customers’ requirements. As Customer Options Engineer at KION ITS EMEA, he deals with customer requests for special truck adaptations. When he received a special request from a packaging manufacturer, Rulfs quickly realized that it would be complex and time-consuming task. The manufacturer wanted to raise the seat on all of its forklift trucks to improve the visibility. “It sounds relatively straightforward: raise the workstation. However, in practice, it is extremely complicated,” says Rulfs. Together with his team, he looked at the processes at the packaging manufacturer’s site, in order to get an accurate understanding of the details of the request—as a result, he decided to create a new prototype for an adapted version of the vehicle.

This was the first time that a digital mockup in a virtual environment was built instead of a physical prototype. Tjark Rulfs was given the task of creating a sketch of the raised seat in CAD form, exporting the data and evaluating it in IC.IDO. “The IC.IDO software is very good at replicating the conditions,” explains Rulfs. In the virtual environment, obstacles—referred to as “key focus areas”—were put in place to represent the customer’s site as realistically as possible. Thus, a virtual experimental set up was created, where a range of truck versions (including digital) could be tested. This process continued until the KION engineers were satisfied with the result. The next step? The customer was invited to Hamburg for a first look at the new individually tailored truck model, which was done wearing a VR headset and sitting on a forklift truck seat in the office.

“I was impressed with how accurately the proportions and conditions were replicated in the virtual environment,” says Rulfs who was, of course, in attendance for the demonstration. “The customer could see with their own eyes the extent to which raising the seat improved the visibility of the load,” enthuses Rulfs. Rulfs is certain that, “This will become the new standard at some point. Being able to have a comprehensive overview of the changes without a lot of investment is simply amazing.” The potential of IC.IDO for the customer cannot be overstated.

This use case shows how virtual visual inspection via digital headset can benefit both the customer and the KION Group. Now, the task is to further raise awareness of the opportunities offered by Virtual Reality within the KION Group and to increase the use of the tool—ideally across all application areas.

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