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.
Fluid flow & virtual reality
Over the past decade, Professor and Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering Chenn Zhou, who directs the Center; faculty colleagues; and student engineers have carved an impressive niche of progress. They have done so by applying computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a relatively new method of analyzing problems involving fluid flow and/or heat transfer by solving mathematical equations that govern the flow dynamics with a range of physical and chemical models.
Zhou, who is internationally recognized for her research in CFD, and the other Purdue Calumet researchers generate millions of calculations to simulate flows of gases, liquid, and/or solids, as well as interactions between these fluids within manufacturing equipment.
While CFD modeling has been used since the 1970s for aircraft design, only during the past 15 years have other industries begun to embrace the concept, according to Zhou.
Just as CFD has gained momentum, so has virtual reality, an exciting new way to view those simulations. With virtual reality, users can interact with a computer-simulated environment.
The combination of these technologies, coupled with Purdue Calumet’s locale in the backyard of industrial America has attracted attention from northwest Indiana industries intent on identifying the source of problems, improving designs, optimizing production and even training employees—all while providing Purdue Calumet students with an unparalleled opportunity to apply in the real world theories they are learning in the classroom and laboratory.
“Mark Hunter, project manager for BP’s Whiting Refinery Modernization Project, explains how the CFD models Purdue Calumet students provided while collaborating on a new design helped make water jet targeting more precise than the previous conventional approach that is typically employed in the industry.
“With the help of tools like CFD, today’s student can visualize fluid mechanics at a “micro-level,” he said. “Historically, engineers solved problems in the field by measuring variables at a couple of different locations, often great distances apart. Then, they would use the available data to draw conclusions about large systems. Thanks to the ability to run complex computer simulations, today’s student can work with individual droplets inside a pipe, instead of streamlines.”
Virtual reality aids visualization
According to Zhou, one shortcoming of CFD has been the relatively poor visualization of the results, which are presented traditionally in 2-dimensional plots.
“By being able to use virtual reality to visualize the results,” she said, “CFD simulations are more powerful. That’s because our CIVS provides a virtual environment to view all the data easily and intuitively, so that we can get faster and better solutions.”
To that end, a VisBox—immersive virtual reality visualization equipment—was installed on campus in the summer of 2008. Since then, Zhou has worked with campus Visualization Specialist John (Jack) Moreland and a group of cross disciplinary researchers and engineering students to integrate CFD simulation with virtual reality visualization.
“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.”
Providing industry ‘valuable insight’
Zhou said that while other universities have facilities similar to the CVIS, few campuses tend to use them as Purdue Calumet does in collaboration with industrial needs.
“The industries are right here, and they need our help,” Zhou said.
David White, director of process research for steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal’s Research & Development unit in East Chicago, agrees.
“In recent years, ArcelorMittal has come to the (Purdue Calumet) CFD lab for help simulating a number of industrial problems, including mixing tanks for raw materials preparation, blast furnace fuel utilization and campaign life, billet reheat furnace energy efficiency, a sinter plant venture scrubber for reducing operating downtime and cost, and a strip heating uniformity problem,” (see accompanying story) he said.
“In each case CFD simulation has allowed us to gain valuable insight into the complex heat transfer and fluid flow phenomenon that occur in these processes, which has led to significant process improvements.”
No shortage of experiential learning opportunities
The problems local industry brings to the CIVS also means opportunities for Purdue Calumet students, whose curricula demands real world, experiential learning as a graduation requirement. Zhou indicated that more than 20 students conducted about 90 percent of the work performed at the CIVS last semester.
Wu, currently enrolled in a Purdue Ph.D. program, is so pleased with the opportunities he has received there that he has turned down job offers at local companies to work as a research engineer at Purdue Calumet, where he earned a master’s degree in engineering last December.
“What we do is what they are doing in industry every day,” he said.
Purdue Calumet mechanical engineering student Tom Roesel of Crete, Ill., said being able to work directly with industry partners in the CIVS validated the textbook theories he is learning.
“It helped me see the practical applications of what I’m learning,” he said. “It helps to cement some of the ideas that are taught in class.”
American Society of Mechanical Engineering Chicago Section Chair Bill Bobco, who organized a section meeting at the CIVS last year, said, “I can understand why students are so excited about these projects. They have practical applications and present the information in a manner that almost anyone can understand.”
Virtual educations: possibilities abound
Hunter said virtual reality also holds promise in another area: training.
“Because this is fairly new, we really have not yet had a chance to brainstorm all of the possibilities,” he said. “But seeing that ‘flow’ is a huge part of our business, and computational fluid dynamics and virtual reality is all about observing flow at the micro level, there may be an opportunity here.
“For example, we may be able to use virtual reality to take live walk-throughs of the crude tower overhead system. This may help us to train our operators better and educate them before they even go out onto the units.”
Zhou emphasized that mechanical engineering is merely one application of virtual reality and that the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation is a resource that can be utilized by many disciplines. She sees a future in which a virtual reality lab is used to simulate an operating room for medical students, the universe for astronomy students, capital flow for management students, a classroom for elementary education students, a bridge or building for architecture students, and more.
To learn more about the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation visit http://webs.purduecal.edu/civs/.
- ArcelorMittal looks to Purdue Calumet Center for help optimizing production
- BP turns to PUC for help in combating corrosion
- NIPSCO challenge provides ‘reality’ learning moment for students
Filed under Featured Story.