Training gets real

To most engineering students a pneumatic piston is just another symbol on a page. Its actions are described by equations and its workings are entirely theoretical. But although this knowledge might be good enough to pass exams, it’s little help when faced with the reality of installing or building a pneumatics circuit. Although the solution […]

To most engineering students a pneumatic piston is just another symbol on a page. Its actions are described by equations and its workings are entirely theoretical. But although this knowledge might be good enough to pass exams, it’s little help when faced with the reality of installing or building a pneumatics circuit.

Although the solution to this problem might seem obvious train the student with real kit it is also expensive. But Dr Ian Hadfield, engineering technologies area manager at Stockport College, believes virtual reality could hold the key to the problem and provide a system that could be used for distance learning and simulation. ‘The availability of computer-based 3D modelling tools means that it should be possible to produce simulations of systems which closely represent real-world components,’ he says.

Hadfield is involved with a European consortium working on a virtual reality pneumatics simulation project called Brevie, which officially started in April 1998, although preparatory work began in September 1997. Brevie was conceived by a University of Bremen research group called Artec. The other partners are: Festo Didactic, the training arm of German pneumatic equipment company Festo; UK virtual reality specialists Superscape and Virtual Presence; educational establishments Friese Poort Drachten of the Netherlands, Escola Superior de Tecnologia e Gestao of Portugal and Schulzentrum Im Holter Feld of Germany; and the ETH-Zurich Institute for Work Psychology in Switzerland.

Brevie has EU grants of e2.3m (£1.54m). The funding comes from the Esprit, Leonardo and Telematics programmes, with contributions from all the partners. ‘The mixture of partners means that there is a balance between commercial interests and educational providers,’ says Hadfield.

Brevie combines real equipment with 3D virtual reality. It allows students to lay out a pneumatic circuit using real components, which can then be scanned into a computer to produce two-dimensional schematic diagrams or full 3D virtual reality circuits, on which test runs and simulations can be done on-screen.

The system uses bar-coded pneumatic components which can be laid out as a circuit on a bench. Two cameras mounted above the bench scans the circuit. The computer software identifies the components from the bar codes and creates a virtual reality version of the circuit, drawing on information from its component database.

The database contains a full 3D model of each of the components, a brief description of their function, and their specifications. This can be used as a ‘help’ facility by students.

‘The use of actual components gives the student the feel and experience of the real world,’ says Hadfield. ‘And using 3D visualisation and schematic representations mean that links can be made between the real and abstract concepts required for learning.’

Around 40 students study pneumatics as part of an HNC at Stockport College, part of Manchester University. The course lasts two years. Mechatronics, of which pneumatic is a part, makes up four of the 10 units required to complete the course. Students spend around four weeks studying pneumatics.

Hadfield tested Brevie with a group of 18 students. Their comments are generally favourable, he says. But they have made a number of useful suggestions.

When complete, Brevie will:

* allow the construction of circuits using multiple double-acting and single-acting cylinders;

* allow the construction of circuits using logic functions;

* allow the construction of circuits using time delays and switches;

* provide help information on all available components;

* provide schematic representations of circuits;

* provide 3D visualisation of circuits;

* recognise components with the minimum level of IT skills required by users;

* allow use of software simulation;

* allow use of simulation tools and 3D visualisation without need for hardware.

Stockport College is responsible for the educational side of the project and managing the education partners. Virtual Presence is running the virtual aspects of the project. Festo is responsible for the ‘real equipment’. Artec is the managing agent for the project and has responsibility for coordination.

‘The main centre for the technical research is at Artec in Bremen. We have an interest in the educational side of the project and looking at the way people learn. ETHZ is doing the analysis from a user’s perspective and in terms of the effectiveness of learning,’ Hadfield says.

The project is due for completion in April 2000, when the consortium should have a working prototype capable of being converted into a final product. Festo Didactic will market the finished product, which Hadfield estimates will cost around e1,000 (£671), to the education and training sectors worldwide.

But for Hadfield, involvement in the entire Brevie project has been an end in itself. ‘As a college we get the use of the material, the use of the equipment, the kudos of involvement with the project and an element of EC funding, which adds to income to the college,’ he says.