When designing a tractor, it’s difficult to foresee every challenge a customer might experience using the machine. But designing with a simulated 3D model, which John Deere employees can climb on and under, sure makes it easier…not to mention more fun.
Daniel Sheremeta, a customer product support representative, is using the technology to, above all, increase distinctive product quality and uptime for customers as he and Deere’s Global Tractor Customer and Product Support team work on Next Generation Tractor designs.
Sheremeta works at the Product Engineering Center (PEC) in Waterloo, Iowa, at one of John Deere’s virtual reality (VR) labs. The lab itself is a room big enough to fit a real tractor, which is appropriate given that the virtual version is a full-size replica. The lab’s 30-foot projection screen shows others in the room what the person wearing a VR headset is seeing.
To demonstrate how the technology works, Sheremeta puts on a VR headset — which covers his eyes and has adjustable headphones. He grips two controllers that simulate the actions of his hands, allowing him to pick up tools he will use on the tractor. The lab’s VR software creates a real-time simulation that builds in the effects of gravity and parts colliding. The VR software places him inside a 3D environment where he can perform service on a machine that looks incredibly life-like.
Using a stepladder, he can climb up to work under the tractor’s hood and he can use a creeper (a wheeled device) to lie on his back and roll around underneath the machine.
“The neatest thing about this technology is the ability to immerse yourself in a full-scale tractor model,” Sheremeta said. “As you virtually perform a service activity, you focus on ‘How do you move around the product? What is your body posture like?’”
Lee Birch, Advanced Visualization supervisor, supports employees who use the lab. Using the computer software, he can create a model of a John Deere tractor comprising as many as 20,000 individual parts.
“Many of our activities are based around tractors that don’t exist yet,” Birch explained. “This is the first time engineers, managers, and technicians get together to explore a design. Usually we find issues with tooling or design that we could find with other tools, but we find them together in the virtual space.”
The virtual environment also comes with simulated mannequins, which can be moved around to see how an average-sized operator or service technician would access various parts on the machine.
Kurt Schmitz, a customer support engineer for chassis and operator station, notes that the VR environment produces a real feeling of standing next to the vehicle. “With the larger tractors it’s pretty amazing how big these things can be.”
Solving Problems from the Inside
The lab’s biggest advantage is that it saves employees time and expense, as they don’t have to assemble or take apart an actual machine in the “real” world. The parts on a virtual tractor come off quickly with a few quick turns of a simulated wrench. “This technology helps in virtual validation and is comparable to a physical validation,” said Amol Sanap, a team member working in Pune, India.
Jason Pedersen, a drivetrain and hydraulics Customer Support engineer, recalled using the lab to see how easy it would be to change a rear brake manifold on one specific tractor design. The team had already used traditional tools, and the results were inconclusive, but in the virtual environment Pedersen confirmed the repair is easy to perform.
“It saved a lot of time,” he said. “If we had waited until we had a physical build and found the repair wasn’t possible, we wouldn’t have been able to request any changes of engineering. Doing it virtually, the change took only a matter of hours.”
The technology also allows Deere engineers to work on design problems that arise anywhere in the world. “All they have to do is load a virtual version of the tractor in question and go to work,” Schmitz said. “I can help team members at different factory locations around the world, looking at different issues. If team members in Mexico, Germany, or Pune need help analyzing a new concept on a tractor, I don’t have to travel there to help them.”
Designing the Future
As lab supervisor, Birch guides a lot of first-time users through their virtual experience. He can see what they’re seeing on the giant screen and walk them through how to move around the tractor, move inside the tractor, pick up tools, and find the way out if they get stuck — yes, users can actually find themselves inside a large tractor part and not know how to get out.
“The first experience people have is that they’re nervous and awkward, but within a few minutes the experience becomes very comfortable and realistic,” Birch explained, “so users don’t need to learn a lot of commands; they can move naturally and explore the tractor.”
Although the space at Waterloo’s Product Engineering Center has been dedicated to a virtual reality lab for 18 years, the technical capabilities have evolved. Deere has similar virtual reality labs at facilities in Dubuque, Iowa, and Mannheim, Germany.
Better yet, Deere’s Customer and Product Support teams are having fun while designing tractors that will make farming easier for future generations.
“It is probably one of the coolest experiences ever,” Sheremeta added, “because we know that we’re influencing designs that 50 years down the road we’ll look back on and say, ‘We helped influence that tractor design.’”