Into the third dimension: 3D printing and VR transforming engineering education

Joseph Flaig

Virtual Reality and 3D printing are pulling engineering classrooms into a new world

Three-dimensional problems taught in a two-dimensional way. That is how Neill Jones, a final-year mechanical engineering student, elegantly describes the issues with traditional engineering education: dynamic, moving objects such as planes, cars or industrial machinery reduced to flat images on monitors or sheets of paper.

Working at London South Bank University (LSBU), Jones set out to bring education into the third dimension. Using the university’s virtual-reality lab, he created a stereoscopic simulation program that reveals the hidden nuances in the tiny eddies and swirls of smoke in a wind tunnel. Watching the ‘smoke’ flow around a vehicle on a 6m x 4m screen with 3D goggles, students experience the wind testing in a way that was never previously possible.

The result, he says, is “absolutely brilliant”. Where old-school lectures are static, new lessons are flexible and interactive; technicolour simulations replace flat, boring photographs. The next step is full virtual reality (VR), and Jones says it is already making engineering education more immersive, accessible and engaging.

New technologies are transforming classrooms, lecture halls and company training centres. But is this three-dimensional education changing engineering itself, and what does it mean for the critical skills gap?

Vet Louisa Poon and Art Institute of Colorado student Salim Fermin adjust custom prosthetics 3D-printed for Sonic the cat (Credit: Andy Cross)

Vet Louisa Poon and Art Institute of Colorado student Salim Fermin adjust custom prosthetics 3D-printed for Sonic the cat (Credit: Andy Cross)

Broadening horizons

After 3D printing burst into the public imagination during the past five years, stories about its wondrous possibilities are still published nearly every day. There is almost an expectation that experimental replacement body parts, spacecraft components or robots will be printed, and it is clear that the technology has many more surprises yet to bring.

Less than half-an-hour’s drive from Cardiff, the engineers of tomorrow are already experiencing the technology’s huge potential. In the village of Miskin, engineering firm Renishaw runs 3D printing workshops for children aged between 10 and 16.

“They come in with an idea they have drawn on a piece of paper, we take that drawing, put it into a CAD program, and an hour-and-a-half later they actually have that physical product in their hand,” says Renishaw’s education outreach officer Simon Biggs. “In that short space of time, they have produced something that was in their head an hour or two ago. It is very exciting for them.”

As their designs for keyrings or earphone clips materialise before their eyes, the children are blown away by the technology’s immediacy and accessibility, says Biggs. “Their ideas can thrive really quickly, and hopefully that will encourage them into thinking ‘engineering is not as difficult as I thought it was, I can get into it’. This introduction is just broadening their horizon, opening their eyes more to the world of engineering.”

The experience is encouraging the primary and secondary school pupils to consider studying engineering and other STEM subjects at university, says Biggs. Higher education is already being revolutionised by the technology, just as in the lab used by Jones at LSBU.

First conceived in 2013, the lab contains high-end 3D printers and a CAD suite, but the university set out to expand students’ horizons even further. “We started thinking, what about the really big projects, where 3D printing was not a viable solution and you are trying to show students things that we couldn’t get to very easily without expensive road trips,” says Tony Roberts, head of technical support services at the university.

To create the desired virtual space, the university bought four military-grade NVIS ST50 headsets capable of both VR and AR applications, and installed the 3D cinema screen used in Jones’s final-year project. The virtual technology gives students an entirely new viewpoint, says Roberts. Small objects are blown up to previously impossible sizes, and users wield large parts with superhuman strength, assembling and disassembling complex machines.

The previously impossible viewpoints offered in virtual reality are key for Jones’s 3D wind-tunnel simulation. Physical views into the tunnel are restricted to one window, and cameras all around an object being tested could disrupt the air flow.

“You struggle to see the detail in the tiny eddies at the rear of the vehicle but, when you upscale it in the VR and you can zoom in and zoom out and pan around it, you can really get a sense of the detail and what is actually happening,” says Jones.

One thing that comes up again and again when discussing VR with experts is its accessibility – the sheer interactivity and simplicity of design means that users engage more with the experience than they do with traditional teaching or instruction manuals. The technology’s controlled nature also means a smaller margin for error and ensures that all trainees sing from the same hymn sheet, says Ton Kuper, co-founder of Dutch VR training software company Serious VR.

Wind-tunnel testing reveals the aerodynamic features of a vehicle (Credit: iStock)

Wind-tunnel testing reveals the aerodynamic features of a vehicle (Credit: iStock)

Ease of understanding

“If you write down ‘You have to push a red button, then pick up this tool, and rotate it twice,’ people have a different visualisation in their minds,” says Kuper. “In a video it is easier to understand, but it is often a lot of information to work through. If you have it in a virtual environment, it goes almost naturally because with a voiceover it tells you exactly what to do in certain steps and you just see what you do. It is much, much easier to understand.”

This ease of understanding translates into quicker, more in-depth and memorable learning, says Kuper, creating a more “efficient” overall process. Once set up, VR systems can offer a cheaper supplement to training methods such as site visits or physical model making.

“One great value of the virtual is that it enables students to practise, make and repair their own mistakes, and develop a skill before going to the real use with metal, with less waste of materials,” says Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at University College London.

At school level, coding initiatives using MIT Media Lab’s Scratch language are helping to create tech-savvy young pupils who will one day write their own engineering programs, says Laurillard. “It made coding creative and sociable, and introduced to children the idea of how to design and create with computers. That’s the basis you need for engineering, along with maths,” she says.


Going beyond education

As universities, schools and companies embrace the possibilities offered by the virtual universe, critics could raise questions about its suitability for educating engineers: are today’s trainees still getting real-world experience? How deep is their knowledge?

On-the-job VR training could show engineers how to complete tasks without necessarily requiring a knowledge of the data underneath, says LSBU’s Tony Roberts. “You can envision a scenario where the person knows how to do the task without necessarily needing to know all the underlying data set,” he says.

However, rather than negating the need for highly-trained engineers, the technology will instead allow them to focus on different things, he says. “It widens people’s understanding of what the parameters might be,” he says. “If you think back a few years to 3D printing, there was a lot of people saying ‘Well, what are the engineers going to do now?’ Actually what it does is it allows you to focus on slightly different things.”

Others believe technology such as 3D printers and VR systems will help tackle some of the biggest problems facing the sector as a whole. The country desperately needs new engineers to fill the skills gap, with Engineering UK predicting a shortfall of 1.8 million by 2025.

Solutions for closing the gap most often come down to education, and Renishaw’s Simon Biggs says that incorporating advanced techniques and applications into the classroom will “definitely” inspire more young people to become engineers.

“New technology will just excite and encourage them more to think about engineering,” he says. “Pupils have an idea of what they think an engineer is. It might be someone who works in a workshop which is oily and dirty and they don’t get paid very well, but when they actually start to interact with new modern technologies they think ‘Actually this could be a really good job and I could be using the latest technologies to come up with designs for hospitals or bridges’.”

Using new technology, teachers might also find it easier to impart their deep knowledge of subjects, says Jones, who demonstrated his virtual program for students. “I am no lecturer,” he admits. “But I found it easy to explain. You can see the model and point to things happening. You can really get involved with it.”

(Lead image credit: iStock)


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