Virtual reality and Six Sigma, a manufacturer's dream?

Joe Kleiss

An American military research center has come up with an engineering technique based on Six Sigma and virtual reality technology that it says saves time, millions of dollars, and gets happier customers in the end. Joe Kleiss, team leader who helped develop the technique at the Armament Research and Development Engineering Center (ARDEC), describes how "Immersive Engineering" works.

As a young engineer, I used to spend much of my time in the hardware prototype shop designing and building models for my customers. The mid-west summers were hot and humid and in the shop we didn’t have creature comforts like air conditioning. Frankly, I thought there just had to be a better mouse trap!
It was about six years ago when I got a glimpse of what that improved mouse trap could look like.I was introduced to something called Cave technology – a type of immersive reality technology. When I first experienced C4, a technology that allows a user to experience a virtual world, I was hooked. The images were so life like that I felt like I could reach out and touch what was in front of me. Look out Star Trek…this may not be quite the Holodeck but it was close!
Clearly, virtual reality could be useful in prototyping. But the story does not end there. At about the same time I was told I was going to have to take a class in Lean Six Sigma. The convergence of technology with Six Sigma methodology had some interesting implications for our manufacturing processes. What I found was a way to combine Six Sigma, system engineering, and display technology. Who said you can teach an old dog new tricks?
How it works
Humans are highly visual. Studies have shown that a significant amount of our brain is used for visual detection and processing.
This is especially true of today’s young engineer. When our young engineers call it a day where do they spend their free time? If he/she is like most of his/her counterparts at some point in the evening they will be gaming at home or at the bar, today's generation is very visual both at work and at home.
To create a more effective decision making environment it has become necessary to provide not only raw numbers in two and three dimensional plots, but it is also necessary to provide a rich visual experience. The use of immersive environment offers just such an opportunity to view a product long before any metal is cut.
Immersion helps decision making. It's a state of consciousness where the awareness of physical self is diminished by being surrounded by an artificial environment. The term immersion is widely used to describe virtual reality, but it is not clear if everyone is using the same meaning of the word consistently.
The term virtual reality is also cited as a frequently-used buzzword, in which its meaning is intentionally vague. Immersive decision making is not vague and is used throughout the Immersive Engineering (IE) process in the form of design reviews.
The process followed in these reviews is a disciplined methodology but it is also flexible enough to allow any product to use immersive decision making at any point in its life cycle of the product. By incorporating the capabilities of the immersive engineering into the design reviews process immersive decision making adds whole new dimension to product development cycle.
Immersive Engineering Process
Figure 1

Immersive Engineering has many parts, all working together to support the customer and their products. The Immersive Engineering Process (IEP) (Figure 1) is at the core of IE and is based on System Engineering and Six Sigma tools, where the Voice of the Customer (VOC) is one of its founding tenets.
IEP also takes advantage of current CAVE® technologies as well as other leading edge technological developments to support the Customer in immersive decision making. The Immersive Engineering Process has been developed over the past several years and aligns with the DoD 5000. 01(The Defense Acquisition System product development process).
The key to IEP is really listening to the customer. We must prepare for the voice of the customer interview by having our questions ready and being ready to assist the customer in getting the information required to truly understand the customer's real underlying needs and wants for the product being developed.
During the next critical phase of the process a brainstorming and affinity exercise is conducted to gather detail needed to help further define the product. During a Intergraded Process Team (IPT) meeting - where as many as 50-60 Subject Matter Experts (SME) meet -the team further identifies the needs and wants of the proposed product.
The exercise produces an affinity output report, which includes Key Performance Parameters, and an interrelationship digraph. The output of this effort is called the Design Priorities & Dependencies Report. This is combined with the affinity output report which creates a Design Input Report which is used during the modeling phase of the IEP.
The Design Input report is then assigned to the Project Design Engineer. Using the design input report, he will take the written requirements of the Design Input report and turn them into a detailed three dimensional (3D) model of the proposed design. The design engineer will have the ability to talk to the customer at any point during this effort both for clarification as well as provide a progress report.
At this point a detailed 3D model of the proposed design will be introduced to the customer using the capabilities of the Immersive Engineering Lab (IEL) (See Figure 2). The IEL is a C4 CAVE® using active stereo technology. It's important to point out that there is no physical hardware to examine at this point . During this first design review the SME's and the program management team from the VOC exercise early on are invited back to discuss the proposed design. Each will have a copy of the original design input report from which the 3D model was created. Each requirement is addressed and reviewed in the IEL to ensure that the form, fit, and function of each requirement has been met. At the completion of the review, any rework required will be completed and a revised 3D Model will be provided to SME's and the program management team for approval.
Inside the IEL
Figure 2
This next steps will take the written requirements of the design input report and the approved 3D model and create the Description for Purchase (DFP). In this phase of the Immersive Engineering Process, the design engineer moves from modeler to author of the DFP. With this change we now are taking the next logical step forward in the IEP. By having the design engineer assume the role of author we ensure a smooth flow of both critical and non-critical information into the DFP.
We have all been there at some point in our career when we are asked, "I have read you paper but I don't understand the what you're asking for." By combining both the written requirements and the visual representation of that requirement, we end up with very powerful tool that allows the engineer to not only embed written requirements, but also have an approved 3D model embedded right into the DFP. The use of visualization tools need not be excluded from the DFP process, it simply takes a different form.

Actual Item
3D Model
Figure(s) 3.1 & 3.2
An example of mixing of the written word and the 3D models can be seen in Figure 3.1 & 3.2 the actual item and the approved 3D model are very similar in design. In the final step of the DFP process an In Process Review (IPR) of the proposed DFP is conducted. During this IPR the Program Manager and his SME are invited to review the DFP for accuracy, ensuring that the requirements called out in the original Design Input Report are met. Again, the VOC is integrated into the IEP.
The Acquisition Process follows the traditional path of Government procurement starting with the Solicitation followed by the Technical Evaluation and then Contract Award; it's during this step in the Acquisition Process that we again take advantage of the Immersive Engineering Lab at two different points during the acquisition process.
The first is during a bidders conference where all prospective bidders are invited to come in an asked question to further their understand of the DFP it is also during this time that this group is shown the proposed design in the IEL. The second time the IEL is used is during the post-award were the winning contractor is brought back into the IEL to ensure he fully understands what he has just signed on to. The Program Management Team and his SME’s will also attend the post award conference. Again the VOC is heard.
During the post award conference the contractor is introduced to the concept of Six Sigma Tools used in the Immersive Engineering Process and how they can benefit him as he goes forward with his efforts to produce his product. We offer our assistance to the contractor ensuring they understand the Six Sigma Tools and how to get the most from their efforts. We also offer to come on-site at the contractor's facility and facilitate the IEP using Six Sigma Tools.
Communication between various company groups, subcontractor and the company's engineering team does not always work well. By bringing together these groups and others who have an impact on the product as it moves from an initial production unit to full scale production, potential problems are identified.
Identification of these types of problems early in the process is very beneficial. The contractor affinity exercise can also bring together other SME’s from within the company to discuss the requirements for the product. By including SME’s in each area of manufacturing you get input from everyone necessary to ensure you get the requirements needed to manufacture. Now as the design engineer begins his efforts, he has the input needed to proceed.
Based on the outcome of the Contractor affinity exercise, an effort will be undertaken to develop a 3D model of the contracted item. The inputs for this effort will have come from the earlier contractor affinity exercise where an output report will have been generated and delivered to the project design engineer.
It should be noted that no matter which approach you take, traditional hardware prototyping or immersive engineering, the level of effort for the design engineer would be the same. At the completion of the design effort the contractor and his initial design, in the form of a 3D model, are brought back to the IEL for a contractor design review.
At this point in the IEP, before the contractor can go forward, they are required to bring their proposed design, in the form of a 3D model (See Figure 4), to the IEL for a preproduction design review. It’s only after this design review that the contractor is allowed to begin the manufacturing process of his initial production unit, or, as I like to describe it, they can begin to bend metal.
Contractor model of the USMC Mobile Machine Shop
Figure 4
During this review all of the stakeholders come together to review the proposed design. The Program Management Team, the SME's and other customers are invited to the preproduction design review. Again the voice of the customer is heard.
Did they get it right? During the test and verification phase of the IEP, the contractor will present the finished product for inspection and acceptance. As in the past, the stakeholders are invited to the contactor's facility for the test and verification phase of the IEP.
In addition to the Program Management Engineering support team, the next most important persons to be onsite during the test and verification is the actual end users of the product, as this is the last time they will have input. During this effort a number of functional tests and verifications are completed. This is the final opportunity for improvements to the product and hopefully these changes will be very minor.
Given all of opportunities the end user has had throughout the course of the IEP, there should be minimal changes to the product. One thing is for certain however: change is constant. In many cases the changes at this point are cosmetic and have minimal cost impact. The contractor is generally more than willing to make these types of changes, after all: it's his product, and he wants acceptance of his product as much as anyone does. Allowing for minor rework at the conclusion of this effort, the contractor is then allowed to move to full scale production.
Contractor actual end item of the Mobile Machine Shop
Figure 5
One of the many benefits that have resulted from the use of the Immersive Engineering is cost avoidance and schedule savings (See Figure 6). Both can provided substantial return on investment.
Cost savings: On average the IEP has provided savings of about $1.1M per project. The cost avoidance number is the result of direct comparison between Immersive Engineering and Hardware Prototyping. After gathering historical data from past projects a cost differential has shown that on average the cost of hardware prototype 4.1 times more expensive then production. The cost avoidance is expected to vary with the level of difficulty of the product.
Reducing lead times: On average, it takes approximately 2.2 years per-project from the initial voice of the customer interviews to the acceptance of the initial production unit. Historical data has reflected that work completed using hardware prototyping on average resulted in 6 years from product inception to initial production unit. On average, the immersive engineering process has provided a schedule savings of 3.8 years per project.
As an example of the cost avoidance and schedule savings the Mobile Machine Shop (See Figure 5), this set provided an actual cost avoidance of $2.7M. The schedule did come in slightly delayed at 2.75 years but overall was still far better than the traditional hardware prototype projects.
Cost Avoidance and Time Line over the past 10 Projects
Figure 6
* Approximation Base on historical data
** Total of three kits
*** Labor savings / GS12-5 * 3.8 Years = Labor Saving (37.37/Hours*1665Hours/per year)10/Projects)
As a practitioner of Immersive Engineering we will continue to us this accepted business model in our team. IE will also continue to grow and be use by the folks of the US Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, Rock Island IL. As we have always done and will continue to do is look at this business model with eye toward continuous process improvement.
As stated earlier change is constant and the only way you can continue to improve Immersive Engineering is through change.
The practitioners of the world are for the most part folks like myself looking for ways to take academic approach to problem solving and apply it to real world problems and that is the premise of Immersive Engineering. By combining a number of engineering disciplines and extracting key parts from each such as system engineering, six sigma, system integration, modeling & simulation and other tools you come to essences of process call Immersive Engineering.
By focusing on the voice of the customer, early in the process and throughout the process your opportunity of providing them the product they have asked for has greatly improved. By continuing to include them throughout the IEP the customer gets exactly what they have asked for, when they asked for it, and right the first time.
The more traditional approach of building hardware prototypes has been replace by the use of Immersive Engineering, allowing the customer to increase his purchasing power through the saving that come from the IEP and with shrinking budgets, reducing the cost of ownership is always good thing.
The benefits of Immersive Engineering have been document throughout the body of this article from cost avoidance of 1.1M, schedule savings of 3.8 years, improved customer satisfaction, and improved quality. Why would you want to do anything else? US Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, Rock Island IL will continue to expand the use and capabilities of Immersive Engineering to improve how we support our customer.
For further listening...
Hear Joe Kleiss speak about Immersive Engineering in this Profit through Process podcast.