Virtually Reality

23 August 2013

IN A darkened room beneath the massive Herrenknecht manufacturing plant in Schwanau, Germany, a man squats and stands, bends and twists in front of a large screen. As he leans, the 3D graphic of a TBM on the wall in front of him distorts and warps to the eyes of everyone else in the room.

The squatting man is Alex Alfano, Herrenknecht's resident expert in the company's new toy. With glasses akin to those you get in an Imax, but with the added feature of four little antennas, Alfano is able to manipulate the screen with his movement. The effect when wearing the glasses is unbelievable. The wearer can twist left and right and get a very real 3D view of his surroundings.

I don the glasses.

Alfano has positioned me near the in the shield of an EPBM just behind the cutterhead. Looking to the left I can see the drive motors, I can reach up to them. I look right and I can see the backup of the TBM. I lean into the screen and look right and I can see right down the entire length of the TBM.

The system, developed in Germany, is called ICIDO. To have a setup like that at Herrenknecht's offices will cost in excess of USD 100,000. The advantages and uses of the system have barely been explored.

The system takes just a few hours to convert the usual AutoCAD models into the virtual reality model.

Initially, Herrenknecht has been using the system to check how a man could perform various operation and maintenance tasks on compact machines. As TBMs become ever more complex and the machines become more congested, the lifelike 3D model allows the user to practice operations and ensure there is enough space for the task to be performed. It also helps engineers identify design clashes and by being able to properly visualise the machine they can find better ways to allocate space.

As the tool is explored further, Alfano believes it could be used to practice complex tasks, maintenance or repairs for machines that have run into trouble in the field. The environment could be manipulated to determine the minimum space needed around a TBM to perform an unexpected operation. It could also be used to rehearse the assembly and dismantling of machines in confined space.

The tool also allows the user to place avatars into the model to undertake tasks. They can be manipulated to perform routine maintenance allowing the user to see where the hazards or challenges might be when performed in real life.

This leap forward in 3D technology, which was pioneered for the automotive sector, offers a small window into the future of machine tunnelling.

It is easy to imagine an augmented reality headset being donned by a machine operator and the full workings of the TBM being visible to the crew.

Or in a further leap, this kind of system might one day remove men from the tunnel environment entirely and have them operate the machine from a small dark room, perhaps somewhere in Schwanau, Germany