What used to be an engineer's dream is now close to reality. Immensely sophisticated computers and software at Iowa State University (ISU) allow engineers to plan hog buildings and ag equipment in virtual reality. And then, while standing in the 3-D virtual image, engineers can make “what if” changes. They can immediately see the outcome of their changes without needing to build expensive prototypes.

ISU's Virtual Reality Applications Center with its special computer-automatic virtual environment, or CAVE, has jumped to the forefront of virtual engineering. Although some companies including John Deere have invested in CAVEs, ISU's system is more extensive because more software and data are linked into it to make more computations.

Total immersion

The CAVE is a six-sided cube of white walls where the computer image is shown. Viewers, wearing special 3-D goggles, feel like they are totally immersed in the virtual environment. An engineer can stand in the environment and make changes to the image through a wireless computer.

“Virtual engineering allows us to make computations,” reports Mark Bryden, ISU associate professor of mechanical engineering. “We can take 3-D objects like a tractor and make a change on it and see what happens. We can predict the outcome before it occurs.”

ISU is cooperating with several companies and industries while fine-tuning their virtual engineering environment. Bryden says they have worked with John Deere on the flow of product through a combine and cotton picker to study plugging problems and energy requirements.

Perfecting building design

The CAVE also is used to help design livestock facilities. Bryden's group is working with the ISU Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and National Pork Board to simulate hog buildings with different size pigs, pens, fencing, flooring and ventilation systems. Tom Richard, associate professor of ag engineering, says the virtual engineering CAVE pulls together all the information about hog buildings and makes predictions on what happens with different parameters. For example, the engineers can see what happens to airflow in a building when solid-side pens are used with slotted floors and a pit fan. Then they can see how pig age affects airflow by making larger or smaller pigs. The engineers are currently using the system to model aerosol disease transmission in a hog building.

Ultimately, Richard hopes to make a scaled-down version of the hog building model for the Internet. Then pork producers may go online, put in their own parameters for a building, and see the results. Producers can virtually test their own designs before making expensive mistakes on a real building.

As with most sophisticated software, the virtual engineering project is undergoing constant change. Right now, the ISU engineers are checking the predictions made by their system to make sure they are correct. Bryden is optimistic that virtual engineering will be very successful in the future. He expects the technology to drop substantially in price and be widely available.