The words “Six Sigma” likely conjure thoughts of a manufacturing floor rather than an engineering simulation. Manufacturing, after all, is what the method for eliminating defects is most closely associated with.
But the data-driven discipline can be used to clean up any business process, including engineering.
To that end, U.S. Army Engineers have implemented a design process based on systems engineering principles and lean Six Sigma methods. They’ve done away with the need for hardware prototypes, saving millions of dollars in the process.
The method, dubbed the Immersive Engineering Process (IEP) relies on visualization technology to immerse engineers in the design of U.S. Military Maintenance Platforms. It moves designs from concept to finished product without hardware prototyping, said Joe Kleiss, project manager for the Armament Research and Development Engineering Center (ARDEC) in Rock Island, Ill.
IEP has significantly saved design cycle costs and time, to the tune of $1.1 million per project and 3.8 years of schedule reduction, as compared to the same project completed without the process, Kleiss said.
He originally created the engineering Six Sigma method as part of his Green Belt Lean Six Sigma project. Now, he and other ARDEC design engineers continue to improve and refine the design process, which relies on visualization technology
Kleiss instituted IEP ten years ago at the Rock Island engineering center.
One big element of the IEP is the Immersive Engineering Laboratory, which uses a 4-sided CAVE technology, a room-size system in which users can interact with three-dimensional digital prototypes of systems.
“The ability to see digital prototypes early on and modify them iteratively provides a way for each of these groups to contribute to the end system design from the very beginning of a project,” Kleiss said.
Via the technology, IEP brings together all design disciplines, decision makers, and end-users early in the design process, he said.
The design starts with voice-of-the-customer interviews. The ARDEC project team interviews the program management team responsible for managing the maintenance platform used by the soldiers and marines who will be the end users, Kleiss said.
Next, the engineering team conducts a brainstorming exercise with actual end-users to define the operational requirements of the platform. They then build a product model that’s brought into the Immersive Engineering Lab for interactive design review, Kleiss said.
“There are several such iterations through out the IEP. We can progress a design right through technical evaluation and contract award without building any hardware prototypes,” he added.
After a customer signs off on a prototype, the CAD images are directly output from the CAVE system to contract documents, Kleiss said.
Kleiss was trained in Six Sigma principles. And because he’d long believed humans are highly visual, he realized Six Sigma and computer visualization technologies could be a natural fit.
“A significant portion of our brain is used for visual detection and processing. This is especially true of today’s young engineer,” he said in a statement. “To create a more effective decision making environment, it is necessary to provide not only raw numbers, of two- and three-dimensional plots, but you must also provide a rich visual experience through immersion.
“Immersive engineering provides such an environment, it affords you the opportunity to view a product long before any metal is cut,” he said.
The immersive environment could be used for more than design simulations. Scientists could, for example, use the CAVE to model and simulate combustion that takes place in normally closed environments, such as engines, he said, Kleiss said.
The Immersive Engineering Laboratory is available to other government customers and to private industry partners.