TractorsVirtual models for prac­tical solu­tions

John Deere’s Mannheim facility uses tools like digital tractor models, 3D glasses and special soft­ware to develop and improve trac­tors. The Furrow takes a visit to a virtual world with phys­ical outcomes.

Two desks, a seating area, a tractor seat with an oper­a­tion unit, two pairs of 3D glasses and a couple of powerful computers – the office used by Jan-Gerd Hinrichs, who is respon­sible for product devel­op­ment virtual support at John Deere, may seem unre­mark­able at first glance. But this is not surprising, since the real magic happens in the virtual space, but the whole envi­ron­ment changes when the visitor gets into the tractor seat and puts on the virtual reality headset 3D glasses.

Suddenly, the visitor is no longer in an office in Mannheim, but in the cab of a 6R. Instead of looking at a grey office wall, the view now sweeps over the true-to-life digital repre­sen­ta­tion of all the controls that exist in a phys­ical tractor cab.

Virtual testing for real use

Jan-Gerd explains: “We use digital tech­nolo­gies like virtual reality and augmented reality to simu­late, rebuild and opti­mise every­thing about the tractor without having to screw in a single bolt or install any hydraulic lines.” With the help of the tractor seat, he and colleagues from the design depart­ment are currently looking for the optimal mudguard shape for a new tractor series. They are partic­u­larly focusing on maximising the field of vision so that the driver can keep an eye on all impor­tant oper­a­tions.

If you turn around in the seat in Jan-Gerd’s office, you can actu­ally see what’s happening behind the tractor and its various imple­ments, depending on the setting. “If we simu­late a mudguard that blocks the visi­bility of an impor­tant area on an imple­ment today, we’ll be exper­i­menting with a different shape just a few days later – that doesn’t happen nearly as quickly with real proto­types.”

Jan-Gerd (right) and his team use augmented reality to take devel­opers or customers from the office envi­ron­ment directly into a virtual tractor.

Thanks to the virtual trac­tors, John Deere can obtain early feed­back from customers and devel­opers on new devel­op­ments.

3D glasses, control units, sensors and projec­tors are all part of the digital devel­op­ment experts’ reper­toire.

Jan-Gerd and his team can also test oper­ating elements and inno­va­tions on the tractor control system this way; made possible thanks to augmented reality. “This is a mix of virtual reality and objects that actu­ally exist,” says Jan-Gerd. “With our latest glasses, for example, we can extrap­o­late the hand in front of the tester’s eyes from the projected reality. This way, the user sees the virtual world and their own hand at the same time. So, they can now real­is­ti­cally deter­mine how well they can access indi­vidual cab oper­ating elements.”

In this way, John Deere not only tests new concepts inter­nally, but also with customers. They can provide feed­back early in the devel­op­ment process on which ideas work well and where improve­ments should be made – before a single real part is produced.

A tractor in the office

Just across the hall, oppo­site Jan-Gerd’s office, is the CAVE: Computer Aided Virtual Envi­ron­ment. This room also appears unre­mark­able at first: There are two tables, a powerful computer, a rack holding about 20 pairs of 3D glasses, and eight small beams on the ceiling, all pointing to one corner. But when Jan-Gerd and his visi­tors put on their 3D glasses and turn on the projector, a green and yellow tractor suddenly appears in front of them – as tall as a man and three dimen­sional.

This virtual model is what the experts refer to as the “digital build” of the tractor. The data for the model comes from all depart­ments involved in tractor construc­tion. The tractor depicted here is completely digital: From the engine to the frame, to the last hydraulic hose and the smallest screw. “We have now used these kinds of builds for over 100 tractor models,” says Jan-Gerd. “They allow engi­neers and designers to look at a tractor in every possible config­u­ra­tion and see where there might be prob­lems before the first real proto­types are built.” On average, the team looks at between 20 and 30 config­u­ra­tions per tractor.

With virtual builds, trac­tors are digi­tally modelled down to the last cable and can be discussed by devel­op­ment teams before the first screw is fitted.

See more on the 3D model

Of course, you could also look at this kind of digital model on a 17-inch monitor at a regular office work­sta­tion, but the devel­opers and designers still appre­ciate working together in the CAVE “Here, colleagues can discuss things on one model and everyone sees the same thing at the same time. In addi­tion, we can cut through the tractor in this room at any point and inves­ti­gate its furthest corners to see if there might be prob­lems – like with the cabling, for example.” As Jan-Gerd explains this, he moves a small control unit in his hand around the room, using it to turn the tractor, zoom in and out, and cut through the model at different levels.

We can cut through the tractor in this room at any point and inves­ti­gate its furthest corners to see if there might be any chal­langes, for example with the wiring.

Jan-Gerd Hinrichs

So, what is the tech­nology behind this magic? “We make use of various soft­ware solu­tions,” says Jan-Gerd. “Most of them can do about 80% of what we need. We then program the rest ourselves.” A more popular solu­tion is the Unity game engine, which is used to build complex computer games and simu­la­tions. Jan-Gerd’s team uses it to view the detailed cabs and trac­tors.

The team like to think outside the box, so they can support colleagues from other depart­ments. “For example, our equip­ment was used when a new test rig was to be built in an existing work­shop here in Mannheim,” says Jan-Gerd. “We simply took all the tech­nology there and used it to beam the test rig with its actual dimen­sions into the room. This allowed everyone involved to see how it would fit on the existing floor space and if and how over­head cranes could be used to set up the test rig.” This is just another demon­stra­tion of the real-world bene­fits that virtual worlds bring to John Deere.