Virtual reality to the rescue!

Featured Story

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009 – 2:04 pm


By Erika Rose
Erika is a freelance writer, Purdue University Calumet alumna
and frequent contributor to Purdue Calumet Insight

Virtual reality to the rescue!

PUC’s new Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation troubleshoots for industry, offers unique learning experiences for students

There’s an old cartoon depicting an engineer slapping his head in frustration as he sizes up a mechanical monstrosity before him. Clearly, something is terribly wrong.“#@$%!” he exclaims, “And you built it exactly the way I said.”Engineers find the comic amusing, because the experience of toiling over formulas, calculations and data to design something they are confident will deliver, only to learn of all its drawbacks once it’s built, is one in which they can identify.“If only we could precisely simulate the thousands of conditions possible inside the pipe before building it,” those olden day engineers might imagine in jest.

“If only we could walk around inside the blast furnace while it’s operating to see what’s wrong.”Those engineers might be amazed that that is precisely what is capable of occurring today. They might still slap their heads in frustration, of course, but the difference is that their trial and error experimentation can be accomplished in front of a computerized simulation, and not the real thing, or even a model.Welcome to Purdue University Calumet’s new Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation (CIVS)—where state-of-the-art technology combined with a modern, high tech engineering education serve to help local industrial companies effectively troubleshoot and improve productivity, energy efficiency, and environmental and product quality.

“If we also can add high performance computing, engineers can conduct interactive design at a virtual reality lab—something we call virtual engineering,” she said.

At the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation in Purdue Calumet’s Powers Computer Education Building, where virtual reality comes to life, university research engineer Bin Wu invites students and industrial partners to put on 3-D glasses and step inside a virtual blast furnace, preheating furnace, heat exchanger, mixer, air duct, or whatever piece of equipment is being simulated.

Standing on a platform facing a giant screen that rises to the ceiling, the viewer becomes surrounded by the picture, becomes a part of the picture, steps inside of it and walks around. Multi-colored arrows swirl around, indicating the velocity magnitude and direction, temperature and other properties of various elements flowing inside.

Kurt Sangster, manager of maintenance and engineering at NIPSCO’s Bailly Generating Station, explains how having the ability virtually to step inside a larger-than-life drawing of a place no engineer can go physically eliminates the guesswork of trying to translate numbers into pictures in one’s mind and then trying to explain that vision to colleagues.

“When we evaluate a situation, it’s difficult for us to gain a clear picture of exactly what’s happening inside, because we’re only able to look at raw data,” he said. “But when Purdue Calumet installed its (CIVS) visualization lab, it allowed us physically to see everything. It makes it so everybody can see the exact same thing.”

Hunter said the virtual reality lab helps field engineers take a step back to rethink, or at least confirm, what the field data is telling them.

“With this new technology, our engineers can take a look inside a pipe, for example, and examine it at a much closer level to identify corrosion or other emerging issues,” he said, “just like a doctor can now use MRI technology to better examine a patient in a non-invasive manner.”