Advanced Manufacturing

(Image courtesy: Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing)

Manufacturers accelerate collaboration, advance technologies inside virtual factory environments

The Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM), a non-profit consortium based in Prince George County, Virginia, gives representatives from industry, academia, and government a collaborative environment to research and development innovative manufacturing technologies and build a qualified manufacturing workforce.

To better serve CCAM researchers and member-company engineers, the organization’s 3D visualization lab expands the collaborative development environment beyond the physical walls of the 62,000-square-foot brick and mortar facility into the virtual, digital world.



CCAM achieves this with a “PowerWall” developed by center partner, Mechdyne Corporation of Marshalltown, Iowa. The PowerWall, a large-scale virtual reality (VR) system, serves as an interface where engineers can visualize an immersive “virtual factory” ecosystem and interact with real-time dataflows, processes, robots, machines, and other highly advanced equipment projected on an eight-foot by 14-foot wall. Engineers wear light weight, motion tracking shutter glasses to experience full virtual reality of the CCAM building and its systems.


The PowerWall even projects systems onto the floor in front of the display so users can stand inside the virtual factory or examine a prototype machine or assembly design. (Image courtesy: Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing)


As experts in converting 3D models into virtual reality applications, the Mechdyne engineering team used the Unity platform – a popular game engine – to import CAD models of CCAD’s digital factory into the immersive display system to make real-time collaborative environments, interactive parts, and dynamic assemblies. The work was made possible by Mechdyne’s getReal3D for Unity plug-in which enables Unity software to display in large interactive VR displays.



These capabilities allow for faster decision making, better cost control, and improved safety and quality when it comes to CCAM researchers helping member organizations solve complex manufacturing challenges like adaptive automation, additive manufacturing, remote monitoring, surface engineering, and tool transport.


PowerWall users can virtually disassemble an engine or other complex machine to determine the most efficient way to replace an internal part, or test how newly designed parts may function within an existing design. 3D visualization cuts costs by allowing manufacturers to explore ideas and refine processes virtually. (Image courtesy: Thomas Motta)


“Automation and artificial intelligence are where modern manufacturing is headed,” says CCAM president and CEO, Will Powers. “The Mechdyne Powerwall is an important resource that helps our researchers and members share unique perspectives and better understand the systems and processes under development.”

Next-generation intelligent factories require automation systems that are contextually aware and can adapt to variability in parts, processes, environments, and people – they derive their power from the interconnectivity of computers, machinery, autonomous vehicles, advanced sensor technology and robotics. The complexity of these interactions can be difficult to conceptualize and make true collaboration challenging.

“Visualizing factory dataflow is one of our biggest challenges,” says Matt Stremler, CCAM’s director of research. “Thanks to Mechdyne, we are one of the only facilities today with a virtual reality factory model where we can work interactively with machine connectivity and the information passing between equipment and controlling processes.”

Stremler says that CCAM is doing groundbreaking work using large-scale immersive visualization to examine processes and performance in real time based on a 3D model of the plant layout.  In the future they expect to use the VR system to examine corporate networks of nodes, switches, routers, firewalls, and dataflows for cybersecurity. With an immersed perspective of network and data ontology, it is expected that the Powerwall will help identify security risks and expose the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) that are known to plague today’s manufacturing facilities, preventing catastrophic breaches.


CCAM’s members and inhouse researchers hail from private companies, public research universities, and government agencies – including Siemens AG, Airbus SE, Deere & Company, General Electric Company, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Rolls-Royce plc, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech, and NASA Langley Research Center.


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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at