French naval shipbuilder DCNS is testing the benefits of augmented reality for warship design, construction and maintenance.
Augmented reality offers a real-time view of the user’s surroundings enhanced with computer-generated information. The technology has now advanced to the point where it is ready for deployment by the French naval defence industry. AR is seen as a building block of the ‘factory of the future’ on which a number of industrial firms and research laboratories are working, including the Technocampus Ocean based near Nantes in western France. The overriding aim is to improve the industry’s productivity by making greater use of robots and digital production technologies.
The French industrial ecosystem of companies specialising in digital tools has a strong track record. Dassault Systèmes, aka 3DS, is a world leader in product lifecycle management (PLM) software for the industrial development of complex products like aircraft and ships. This ecosystem also comprises a number of innovative SMEs, including Clarté and Diota, two companies specialising in virtual and augmented reality.
Inspecting submarine design details using DCNS Cherbourg yard’s VR room (© DCNS)
An increasingly digital world
While some industry followers may be aware that STX France has been monitoring AR’s progress closely, few suspect that this is also true of DCNS. After developing its first all-digital design (for Saudi Arabia’s Al Riyadh-class frigates sold under the Sawari II programme) in the 1990s, DCNS commissioned its first virtual reality room in 2005. This facility is used to validate the accessibility and ergonomics of shipboard spaces and equipment positioning. More recently, things have begun to accelerate. In operational terms, the aim is to improve data management and tactical situation analysis on bridge and ops room consoles aboard next-generation warships. For shipyards, the aim is to apply the technology to warship design, construction and maintenance. Here too, things are moving along as DCNS is now testing AR for the design of selected blocks of frigates and submarines. The next step will be to make AR an integral components of the group’s core PLM process. “Among other things, this will mean giving workers, whether on a ship or in a workshop, direct access to the digital data they need for the job in hand, be it fitting, inspection, maintenance or handling,” says Yann Bouju, DCNS’s VR & AR projects manager.
Comparing the real and the virtual
Each worker will have a tactile-screen tablet with a built-in camera. The device will display a real-time image of the item of interest superimposed on the corresponding 3D model. Image and model will, of course, respond to operator movement. “Special algorithms will identify salient features for which the virtual imagery should be viewed at a particular angle and/or enlargement. The system will accommodate operator movements while superimposing virtual data in real time on images captured by the camera.” Workers will be able to see at a glance any cables, pipework, supports or other equipment, whether already in place or still to be installed.
Reduce errors by knowing exactly where you are
By comparing the real-time image and the digital model, the worker can quickly check whether or not a given item has been installed and how much work remains to be done. AR also enables those working on site to plan ahead for, say, demanding jobs in cramped or cluttered spaces with multiple layers of wiring, cabling, pipework and the like. “AR overlays are ideal for checking what is already in place and whether it has been fitted correctly. The technology will be especially useful (a) when planning the fitting of equipment supports and seatings, whether welded, bolted or bonded; (b) when installing equipment amidst layers or wiring, cabling and pipework, all of which must be carefully positioned; and (c) when outfitting electrical cabinets, many of which look similar but nevertheless differ significantly from each other. AR is expected to reduce operator errors in all of these situations.” Workers will also be able to record screen dumps to include in their work reports which, in turn, will help on-site teams doing any later work.
Improved data exchanges
One of the overriding aims is, as we said, to improve the shipbuilding process. This will be achieved by reducing lost time during shipyard work and errors, each of which takes time to detect and correct and results in additional cost. A further aim is to expand and improve data exchanges between work sites, design teams and project managers. “The more digital the workflow, the closer we bring data to the workplace and, with time, the faster everyone gets the feedback they need. In the not-too-distant future, we expect to achieve an all-digital workflow resulting in better control over design and production, not to mention faster delivery of the finished product.”
This new workflow and the associated VR and AR tools are, of course, based on a detailed computer model of the entire ship. The model is developed using powerful PLM software designed for teamwork and digital project management over the product’s entire lifetime from design concept to through-life maintenance and dismantling. “Our PLM software supplies data to the AR application while receiving data from tablets in the field.”
Developed in conjunction with Diota
To tailor the AR tool to its precise needs, DCNS worked closely with Diota, a French SME specialising in industrial AR. To work together, the partners set up a joint R&D programme dubbed Nasima. The aim is to develop a dedicated AR hardware and software platform for industrial applications and to begin marketing it in two years’ time. The solution will also include an application giving anyone working on site access — using tablets, 3D glasses, projection systems and the like — to all the information they need to do their assigned job. “Diota’s task is to develop and put into production AR solutions meeting the requirements of industrial companies participating in the project. In the present case, we are tailoring Diota’s solutions to our own ‘use cases’ which are then incorporated one by one into the feedback database,” says Yann Bouju.
The application is now being tested on two blocks of a FREMM multimission frigate under construction at DCNS’s Lorient shipyard and on a hull section of a submarine under construction at the Cherbourg yard, the chosen section being representative in terms of hull forces.
Two FREMM frigates on the assembly line at DCNS’s Lorient yard (© DCNS)
Secure integration with core IT systems
For technical reasons, a steel hull under construction is not an easy environment for wireless communications; and, for security reasons, wi-fi is also out of the question. “Secure data communications is obviously a high priority, which means making the hacker’s job as difficult as possible. This is why we came up with the idea of a fixed, secure, data station where field devices download VR data, then, on completing a field task, upload the data gathered or generated.” The data in question passes through the group’s core IT systems, including the IT Services department’s own systems, hence the department’s active participation in the Nasima project. “With AR now ready for deployment, the big challenge is to integrate it with our core IT systems in preparation for a secure group-wide roll-out. Another is to massage incoming data to make it more usable. Our IT Services department’s system architects are currently developing the necessary interfaces with a view to group-wide AR roll-out.”
Following the completion of the R&D phase and a series of on-site tests, DCNS plans to start rolling out its AR tools by 2020. “We plan to roll out our AR tools to fitters, assemblers and inspectors over the next three years. For the moment, we will begin implementing the new workflow using tactile-screen tablets. We may advance quite quickly to VR helmets, and later to VR glasses, which have the advantage of leaving the wearer’s hands in full view. We are starting with tablets because they are reliable, rugged and readily available whereas current-generation VR helmets do not, for the moment, accurately overlay virtual and real data. On the other hand, the technology is advancing rapidly and we will review our options when helmets are mature enough for industrial VR applications. We are obviously monitoring the situation and each new product very closely. When the time is right, we’ll test them on our use cases and, if the tests are conclusive, make them part of our process.”
Shop teams are keen
The feedback from fitters, assemblers, inspectors and others following tests at DCNS yards — where high-tech tools are no longer the sole prerogative of engineers — has been very positive, says Yann Bouju. “Shop workers of all ages quickly buy into the tools and are keen to see them deployed. It’s true of course that these tools are both easy to use and a step in the right direction; also that it is rewarding for one and all to participate in the rolling out of a new technology for all types of work. The application of high-tech tools to a metal bashing industry like shipbuilding promises to prove quite a revolution.”
Once a ship has been built and commissioned, the next phase is, of course, through-life support. “When it comes to maintenance and tasks like removing then refitting equipment, the benefits of AR are obvious. For example, before or in the course of a refit, maintenance personnel can preview and plan successive operations, then monitor progress and check that everything is done correctly in the same way as during the new-build process.” To this end, teams at the group’s Services division are ready and waiting to test AR when refitting French Navy warships over the coming months.