Aggregate producers explore possibilities of virtual reality

By |  March 23, 2018

Manufacturers like Caterpillar have leaned on VR technologies to develop equipment over the years. Photo courtesy of Caterpillar

Virtual reality (VR) technologies made their presence known last year at ConExpo-Con/Agg, as a number of exhibiting companies featured opportunities to view equipment through VR headsets.

Companies offered experiences at their booths, allowing attendees to try on headsets to view equipment that was not present at the show. VR showed attendees training videos, as well as videos describing the design and development of equipment.

“Almost every major construction equipment manufacturer booth had some kind of VR,” says Kurt Chipperfield, a VR engineer at John Deere Dubuque Works, reflecting on ConExpo-Con/Agg 2017.

To Chipperfield, ConExpo-Con/Agg exhibitors with VR technologies really stood out a year ago. Chipperfield recalls John Deere being one of the only companies to offer a VR experience during ConExpo-Con/Agg 10 years ago. John Deere utilized virtual reality to showcase its GP motor grader controls at the 2008 show.

“I remember that really well because it was a challenge to take the [VR] from our product development lab and haul it to ConExpo-Con/Agg,” Chipperfield says.

Fast-forward to today and many exhibitors have caught on, wowing attendees with a virtual experience.

While a direct application for use in quarries may not yet exist, Chipperfield envisions VR ultimately applying to a number of industries – including the aggregate industry – in the near future.

“I can’t call myself an expert on the aggregate industry,” he says. “But based on the technological advancements that have happened in VR the last few years, I would see it impacting not only the quarry and aggregate industry, but all construction worksites. There will definitely be VR technologies in other industries moving forward.”

Showcase alternative

John Deere utilized virtual reality to showcase its 944K wheel loader at last year’s ConExpo-Con/Agg. Photo courtesy of John Deere

Some equipment manufacturers recognize the value in utilizing virtual reality to showcase equipment it cannot bring to a trade show such as AGG1.

At ConExpo-Con/Agg 2017, John Deere utilized VR to showcase its 944K wheel loader to the aggregate industry. VR gave attendees the opportunity to virtually “climb into the cab” and look around a quarry environment.

“You can see the bucket, the controls and the roominess of the cab,” says Scott Ford, creative manager representing John Deere. “You can come close to the operation experience of the machine without physically climbing inside.”

Mack Trucks also brought VR to ConExpo-Con/Agg a year ago, showcasing its mDRIVE HD 13- and 14-speed automated manual transmission trucks. The VR experience put show attendees in a granite quarry to see how the truck drives around a wet, muddy quarry without getting stuck.

Mack Trucks launched its VR experience a couple of years ago when it debuted mDRIVE HD. The company wanted more people to experience the truck capabilities.

“At the time of the product announcement, there were only a handful of trucks available with the new transmission, so being able to demonstrate the capabilities of mDRIVE HD in a live environment was not an option,” says Neil Tolbert, director of marketing communications at Mack Trucks. “We turned to VR to put existing and potential Mack customers into a truck to demonstrate the transmission.”

In addition, McLanahan embraced VR during MINExpo International in 2016, showcasing its rotary scrubber and rotary wet trommel screens that it could not physically bring to the show. Attendees put on VR headsets that used the Oculus Gear VR system to “walk around” the two machines.

“These were huge, huge pieces of equipment, so we had to come up with another way to show these off,” says Andrea Ritchey, marketing and communications manager at McLanahan. “We’re hoping this is the way we can show more of our equipment at shows in the future.

“I would assume this technology would improve with time,” she adds. “[MINExpo] was our first go of it, so we’re excited to see what it can do.”

Development and testing

Neil Tolbert, director of marketing communications at Mack Trucks, assists a customer with a VR experience. Photo courtesy of Mack Trucks

Several equipment manufacturers also integrate virtual reality technologies to help with the development and design of equipment. Some of those companies have been using VR in that capacity for nearly two decades.

A few Caterpillar machines that serve the aggregate industry were developed with the help of VR technology over the years, according to Galen Faidley, senior engineering project team leader at Caterpillar. Cat first used VR for product development in the early 1990s through a partnership with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

“In the product development space, [VR] is used to assess human and machine interaction early in the product development process,” Faidley says. “Operator visibility, machine serviceability and product assembly are a few common-use cases.”

John Deere, meanwhile, first implemented VR technologies about 20 years ago to help with the design and development of equipment. John Deere partnered with Iowa State University, using VR to test a machine’s readiness for the market.

According to Chipperfield, an in-house VR expert would sit in a virtual reality setting while customers watched what the expert saw in VR on a separate screen.

McLanahan Corp. embraced virtual reality at the last MINExpo, showcasing its rotary scrubber and rotary wet trommel screens through the Oculus Gear VR system. Photo by Megan Smalley

“It wasn’t very immersive [years ago] because the customer wouldn’t be the one in the seat trying the VR,” he says. “Now, we’re able to put customers in the machines to have them do tasks that are representative of what they do on job sites. They can drive virtual machines around and give us feedback on ergonomics and many other things while in the VR experience.”

Today, John Deere continues to use VR to test the development of its machines, only the technology is more seamless, Chipperfield says. John Deere uses VR to evaluate a machine’s serviceability and operator visibility to buckets, tires and other components before building prototypes.

A training tool

Virtual reality isn’t widely recognized as a tool for training yet, according to Caterpillar. But VR has been used for training in at least one application in the mining industry.

During MINExpo two years ago, Immersive Technologies showcased WorksiteVR, a tool that shows users around an underground mine with a 3-D perspective through a VR headset. WorksiteVR provides new hires in the mining industry an introductory view of an underground mine in a safe, virtual environment.

“In VR, you can see a lot of information and have depth perception, but you’re locked out of the physical world, so you can’t offer physical training,” says Tim Radbone, product manager at Immersive Technologies. “But [Mine Rescue] helps to familiarize people with the mining environment before they finish their training and induction to the industry.

“VR is still a young field – a work in progress,” Radbone adds. “A lot of research is going into it at the moment, but it’s changing very quickly.”


Definitions

Virtual reality (VR) – An artificial environment experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment.

Augmented reality (AR) – An enhanced version of reality that overlays digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera).


Augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) technology allows people to overlay data, graphics and information on the real, physical world.

Caterpillar debuted Cat LiveshARe last year at ConExpo-Con/Agg through a partnership with Scope AR as a means to integrate AR into equipment dealer support calls to equipment operators, and vice versa. During the call, an operator can make a call on a smartphone or tablet and show the Cat dealer the problem through video, 3-D graphics and whiteboard animations.

Although AR is still just emerging as a technology, a Cat representative projects AR to become more popular in the future.

“AR done right will revolutionize the world much like smartphones did,” says Galen Faidley, senior engineering project team leader at Caterpillar. “At some point in the future, I would expect every person on a job site or mine to be wearing augmented reality headsets with contextual and location-based information always available to help with the job at hand.”

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