As head of Vaccine Manufacturing at Sanofi, a global pharmaceutical and healthcare company, Mary Oates has a major role in the company’s mission to “chase the miracles of science to improve people’s lives.” One innovation that is helping to accelerate Sanofi’s delivery of life-saving medicines? The virtual twin. Compass asked Oates how Sanofi is using these scientifically accurate visualizations of its vaccine manufacturing plants and processes to test, refine and implement improvements that enhance quality, lower costs, improve worker safety and ensure ample drug supply.
Virtual twins enable us to build, model, learn and improve in the digital world, without suffering any consequences if something we try doesn't work as planned. By testing our plan in the twin, we can know before we take an action that it will accomplish our goal, or if we need to make a new plan. For example, in one of our plants, we knew that production was going to increase and there was already a bottleneck in the washing area. This is a very simple environment: the dirty formulation tanks are brought in, get disassembled, cleaned, reassembled and sterilized, and then they are sent back out to production.
While the steps are pretty simple, they involve a tremendous number of interactions between all the different parts that comprise the washing area. Our goal was to determine if we could bring in additional manufacturing volume without having to expand that area. So we decided to build a virtual twin to see if we could find the answer to that question.
We didn’t have any data-collection sensors in that part of the plant, so we had to collect the data manually. We determined the availability of qualified operators and equipment, and how long we needed the equipment for each step in the process.
We also looked at the time required for routine and non-routine maintenance. For example, how often did the equipment break down and go out of service? We looked at SOPs [standard operating procedures]; what steps did the operators have to follow and in what order? We also determined unwritten ways of working, things that are not listed in the SOPs.
We talked to the operators, asking them how they work: how they manage lunch, how they manage breaks, how they organize the flow – things that weren't written down. We also observed the area in operation, and we documented everything that happened in each area. We did that for a period of three months, because we wanted to make sure we had enough data to say: this is how the washing area really operates on a day-to-day basis.
After we collected all the information, which was rather labor intensive, we entered the data into the virtual twin software, and we modeled the entire process. And then, using the advantage of the twin, we adjusted the parameters. We adjusted them one by one and we adjusted them collectively to see what difference they would make, and to evaluate if we could increase the capacity of the washing area.
We also tested the gut instincts that our operators had about what they thought would make things better. Surprisingly, more often than not, their gut instinct turned out to be incorrect.
The twin showed us, for example, that adding more washing stations or another autoclave only moved the bottleneck further down the process. Instead, we discovered we had to optimize in a range of areas to increase the overall capacity of the washing area. So we learned that, yes, we can accommodate the additional manufacturing volume without increasing resources inside the washing area, simply by making the improvements we identified. We are in the implementation phase of this now.
The beauty of a virtual twin is that you can try something and fail, again and again, and it doesn't cost you anything in terms of tying up the physical area or expenditure of resources, apart from building the twin. A couple of other things that we learned from this exercise relate to the expression "garbage in, garbage out." We have to make sure that the data that goes in is accurate and up to date. And, because there is no direct connection in this case between the physical world and the digital world, we need to manually update that virtual twin to reflect changes in what we are doing in the physical washing area.
Let me share a more complex example in Sanofi’s forthcoming EVolutive Facility (EVF), where we plan to use virtual twins throughout the entire vaccine lifecycle. We are currently building the EVFs in France and in Singapore, which will be essentially identical. During the building phase, we are creating a virtual twin for the design review. We will input the entire facility layout to create an accurate 3D layout. We are going to identify the locations of every single object in the space; for example, where each cable, plug and socket will be.
Once we have that, we will layer in where the equipment will be located. So whether it's single- use equipment or stationary equipment, we will know where every single piece will be. Once we have that virtual twin, we will be able to evaluate the space for any potential issues or clashes. For example, will a wall cover a pipe that we will need to access in the future?
We'll also be able to make sure that the operations team has a complete view of the space. So it's not just the engineers building it that have the visibility; now the operators will be able to look as well to see the flow of people, materials and waste through this facility to make sure that everything will work as is intended. There's certainly some software today outside of virtual twins that allows you to do this, but it's the building blocks that make the virtual twins so incredibly useful.
The processes that we will use in the EVFs will be developed by R&D in another facility, then transferred into the EVF. Once we understand what the processes coming to us from R&D are, we can then layer them into the virtual twin. This will then allow us to understand exactly how each process will work in the facility: how the equipment will run, what we anticipate the results will be, because we'll be able to simulate the process in the EVF twin without ever physically going into a facility.
That will allow us to make any modifications that we think are necessary in terms of the process, given the physical space and the equipment that we have available to us. Then we can transfer these processes into the physical EVF.
Because we will have sensors on all of the equipment and across the environment, all of that information will flow into the twin. Through all this data coming in, we will be able to continuously learn and compare results to the original process transferred to us from R&D. That allows us to be fairly confident that the time required from initial introduction of the process to when we are ready to do validation lots of vaccine will be approximately 50% less than with conventional processes. So, through the use of a virtual twin, we'll be able to bring our new vaccines to market much quicker than we have historically.
It’s news no parent wants to hear.
Three days after their daughter Annika was born, Allison and Adam Seed learned their baby girl had multiple heart defects, including a rare combination of defects called “tetralogy of fallot with pulmonary atresia,” which affects blood flow and oxygenation. Three days later, Annika had the first of several risky open heart surgeries at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Fortunately for the Seeds, Annika’s physicians were some of the best in the business. To address her life-threatening condition, Annika would undergo six surgeries by the time she turned 2 years old. By the age of 6, she’d had three open-heart surgeries and five cardiac catheterizations, a trial-and-error process that allowed the surgeons to learn what would be best for Annika as they observed her progress.
While their daughter’s devastating diagnosis left her parents with what they describe as the “complete feeling of powerlessness,” the aggressive treatment Annika received over those two years at Boston Children’s Hospital has given them hope that Annika will be one of the lucky ones to live a full life that most of us take for granted.
The Seeds were fortunate to live near Boston, where their doctor and his team at Boston Children’s Hospital had access to the best technology, which now includes access to a secret weapon: The Living Heart Project. For patients like Annika, the cardiac care team now uses realistic digital heart simulations, a virtual twin of their heart, customized to their specific physiology, to plan and practice surgeries that will yield precise and predictable results.
Founded in 2014, the Living Heart Project developed the first, fully functioning 3D virtual heart that could be customized for a patient’s specific physiology, allowing surgeons to test and validate their treatment plans before they operated, creating a unified team and greatly increasing their chances of success.
The simulations also give families more confidence and ownership in decision-making. The sense of powerlessness that the Seed’s felt is no longer necessary as they can see in vivid 3D the internal structures and vessels in their child’s body, understanding what isn’t working and what the surgeons plan to do to improve her condition. With the help of the Living Heart, both the medical care team and the parents are able to understand the personalized surgical intervention, increasing everyone’s confidence in the chosen course of action.
“It was mind blowing for us to see the possibilities, not only to have more ownership as part of the care team as parents, but to see this technology at work in the hospitals,” Allison Seed said. “It filled us with so much hope for our daughter.”
Today, Annika Seed is a healthy teenager. Her mother now works for the American Heart Association, promoting the role of technology in pediatric heart health. And the breakthrough technology used to create the Living Heart is now being applied to modeling even more organs … and, eventually, to the entire human body.
For Dr. David Hoganson, a pediatric cardiac surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, utilizing virtual twins helps him plan and perform anatomic repair in the most complex cases, like Annika Seed’s. The 3D models and simulations reduce variability and improve outcomes in pediatric cardiac surgery.
“The highest risk patients require meticulous planning that goes beyond experience,” Hoganson said. “Better planning equates to higher margins at every level, which then translates to better [clinical] outcomes. … [With this technology, we can] make things that we can control as perfect as possible.”
Hoganson and his team at Boston Children’s Hospital were early adopters and partners in this leading-edge technology. With each success story, confidence and evidence that the technology works grows. As their supporting data and peer-reviewed papers are published, the Living Heart becomes accepted and adopted more widely – eventually, potentially, becoming the standard of care.
For years, virtual twins have been applied to various industries: aerospace, manufacturing, consumer packaged goods and retail. But how did they come to be applied to humans in the life sciences and healthcare industries?
As it did for the Seeds, the story started with news no parent wants to hear.
Steve Levine’s daughter was born with a congenital heart disease. Her left and right ventricles were reversed, disrupting the heart’s natural functions and increasing the likelihood the weaker ventricle will fail as she ages. She also had a one-in-a-million “congenitally corrected” heart, meaning her heart adapted to the changes in the womb. These changes posed a mystery to physicians as they hoped to help her live as long as possible.
“We rely on simulation to transform the world around us. Now is the time to transform the world within us.”Steve Levine
chief strategy office and founder of the Living Heart Project
The first failure was her electrical system, requiring a pacemaker at the age of 2, much earlier than doctors expected. Typically, such life-threatening complications arise around 30, suggesting her case and her future was unclear. Driven as any parent would be to do whatever he could, years before she would reach that milestone, Levine dedicated himself – and his skills – to helping save not only his daughter’s life, but the lives of all patients with unusual heart structures.
Levine, an engineer by training, had spent years helping design extremely detailed 3D crash simulations for the automotive and aerospace industries. He thought: Why can’t we use similar technology in the medical field? If this technology could be used to build a virtual model of the human heart, could it provide insights into medical decision making – the same way automotive and aerospace companies learn from vehicle simulations?
As the chief strategy officer for a division at Dassault Systèmes, Levine was inspired by his company’s goal to not only help develop safe and efficient cars and planes, but to help build a more sustainable world, including the people in it. With that in mind, he launched the Living Heart Project in 2014, when his daughter was in her mid-20s. The project’s ambitious vision? To “advance the development of safe and effective cardiovascular products and treatments by uniting engineering, scientific and biomedical expertise to translate cutting-edge science into improved patient care.” It meant bringing experts from around the world to work together and not only achieve what had never been done before, but to make it available to doctors everywhere.
To build the “living” heart, work started with MRI and CT imaging scans of donor hearts, which were reconstructed and enhanced with new muscle tissue models and detailed fiber orientations in scientifically accurate 3D. The heart would need a detailed electrical system, fully functioning valves, fluid chambers and the other details of this complex organ that nature had perfected over millions of years of bioengineering. Finally, a circulatory system model for blood flow was created to place the heart within a realistic human body at rest, under stress etc. Together, these elements combined to create a scientifically accurate computer model of a functioning heart. Because it works from the same principles as a real heart, the resulting 3D simulation can help all stakeholders – from patients and families to cardiologists, radiologists and surgeons – communicate more effectively, while helping researchers develop new treatments and surgeons plan, test and practice complex medical procedures.
The project was a success. “We rely on simulation to transform the world around us,” Levine said. “Now is the time to transform the world within us. We can now create virtual twins of the human body to visualize, test, understand and predict what cannot be seen – from the way drugs affect a disease to complex surgical outcomes – before the patient is treated. The virtual twin can be built to represent most of us, and then be personalized for each.”
Now in its 8th year, the Living Heart project has grown from changing lives to changing the industry. Today, the project has support from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and more than 175 member organizations in 24 countries. Hospitals use the models to plan and predict surgical outcomes, companies use to design new therapies or replace testing on animals and the FDA is evaluating it as a substitute for people in clinical trials. Its success has led to sister projects: the Living Brain and Living Lung, and Liver as well as complete circulatory and musculo-skeletal system models for improved orthopedic treatments.
Now, cases of using virtual reality, artificial intelligence, 3D imaging and virtual simulations to dramatically improve medicine are occurring around the world. Recently, surgical teams in Brazil and the United Kingdom worked together using VR technology to safely and successfully separate conjoined twins connected at the brain. At the H. Hartmann Institute for Radiosurgery and Radiotherapy in France, the VORTHEx project lets patients experience their treatment beforehand, in virtual reality; through a twin of radiotherapy sessions, patients mentally prepare for what they will experience. And research organizations and healthcare providers around the world are beginning to develop, test and use technologies for virtual twins of not just the heart and brain, but lungs, skin and, eventually, the entire human body.
“The heart project proved that if we work together, we can systematically understand and reproduce how the body works. The next step is to diversify and build all the key organs and body systems, like the brain, the liver, kidneys and the lungs,” Levine said. “The work on these virtual twins is not as advanced as the heart, but that will happen much more efficiently using the template that was created by the Living Heart.”
Combining virtual twins with other technologies, like 3D printing, creates even more opportunities for complex training and patient-specific solutions. French-American startup Biomodex, for example, creates biorealistic haptic simulators for physicians to use in rehearsing complex medical procedures such as brain aneurysm surgeries. The technology is also used to advance surgeon training, leading to safer procedures and improved outcomes.
“Using the models for pre-procedural rehearsals allows us to know in advance if an approach is going to work and, if not, helps us to determine which medical device would be more effective,” said Dr. Anthony Le Bras, an interventional neuroradiologist at CHU Rennes who has used Biomodex simulators. “This not only boosts physician confidence, but also reduces operating times and decreases the risk of complications during the real procedure.”
The use of virtual twins in complex medical procedures is changing – and saving – lives today. These sophisticated technologies are poised to further transform the healthcare ecosystem by incorporating virtual modeling and simulation into regulatory frameworks, medical device development, delivery of personalized healthcare and medical education for patients and caregivers.
As the healthcare industry embraces the use of virtual twins, innovators around the world will continue to transform the way the medical profession gains knowledge, shares experience, treats patients and safely tackles the unsolved mysteries in medicine.
And Levine’s daughter? She is now 33, an MD/PhD practicing pediatric neuroscientist, waiting for the Living Brain to help her solve the toughest challenges of neurological disorders in children … and her heart is bigger and stronger than ever.
Learn more about DassaultSystèmes’ solutions for the Life Sciences and Healthcare industry.
At the biggest moment in NASA astronaut Mike Massimino’s career, on a 2009 spacewalk to repair the Hubble space telescope’s most important scientific instrument and “save astronomy,” the first, simplest step went wrong, endangering the mission.
In that moment, Massimino called on the four leadership lessons that he and his fellow astronauts had mastered throughout their careers: Purpose, perseverance, preparation and teamwork.
The combination saved Hubble that day in 2009, keeping astronomy alive until the James Webb telescope comes online later this year. Those same leadership lessons, Massimino said at the recent Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE Forum in Florida, can help business executives lead their companies through turmoil and disruption.
“These are times of great change,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just that things are maturing and technology is changing and you’re trying to anticipate that. And then you’re hit with something like a pandemic, and you have to change again and pivot and figure it out. Reach out to your teams, your colleagues and support staff. Remember the importance of persistence and not settling for second best or just OK; really shoot for that North Star. That may mean investing more effort and more expense, but it’s all worth it because you’re working on sustainability and better healthcare and other projects that are really worthwhile.”
To illustrate those four leadership lessons, the amiable astronaut, author and Big Bang Theory guest star told the story of that day in May 2009 when a long-fought-for mission to repair the Hubble’s most important instrument nearly failed.
Both of Massimino’s spaceflights, in 2003 and 2009, focused on keeping the Hubble space telescope operating. On both missions the team’s purpose was crystal clear: “Save astronomy.”
The team nearly lost that opportunity in the wake of the February 1, 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion. For the next four years, NASA focused its attention not on mounting missions to space, but on diagnosing the problem and developing plans for shuttle flights to resume safely.
When they did, NASA decided that work to complete the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) could continue, because the station offered life support in case of emergency. Hubble, in a completely different orbit 100 miles farther from Earth, did not. Due to the lack of life support, NASA canceled the repair mission that would have put Hubble’s most important instrument back in service.
The decision was a tough blow for the Hubble team to accept.
“We didn’t want the Columbia disaster to take more than our friends,” Massimino said. “We wanted to continue with the program and service Hubble one more time.”
And so the Hubble team persevered, buckling down to develop a proposal that could overcome NASA’s concerns.
“Everyone stayed very focused on what was best for the telescope and for the program and for science, on the information and the data and the understanding that Hubble could bring to us if we repaired it and kept it going,” Massimino said. “I think it’s the greatest scientific instrument ever built, and that gave us great purpose to help the astronomers continue to do their great work. Realizing that kept us going.”
It’s easy to be passionate about the Hubble space telescope because its discoveries are “all public domain, and not just for Americans but for everyone in the world,” Massimino wrote in his best-selling autobiography Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. “It’s done solely for the enrichment of our fellow man, and that’s an incredible thing. The need to explore, in its purest sense, is always driven by the desire for knowledge itself, and that principle is so important that people are willing to risk their lives for it . . . Which is why we weren’t going to let our telescope die without a fight.”
The team worked diligently on a plan to make the repairs with a robot they could maneuver remotely from Earth, but continued to lobby NASA’s leaders that the most important operations required a human touch. When a new NASA administrator arrived, the team took the opportunity to make an audacious proposal to improve safety: prepare a second shuttle to rescue the crew if Atlantis sustained launch damage and couldn’t return.
NASA agreed. For the first time in history, when STS-125 took off in May of 2009, a second shuttle stood ready for launch on an adjoining pad.
Atlantis didn’t need rescuing. But the mission’s most important task – replacing the main power supply on the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) – did.
The STIS, used to conduct 30% of Hubble’s research, had stopped working when its power supply module failed in August 2004. Its main jobs also were Hubble’s most important ones: studying the relationship of black holes to their host galaxies, and searching the atmospheres of distant planets for environments that could sustain life.
To protect Hubble’s instruments during launch, NASA engineers buried them beneath layers of insulation, covered them with heavy hatches and sealed everything with bolts. To access the STIS power supply, working in gloves he describes as “oven mitts,” Massimino had to remove a metal clamp secured by two torque-set screws; a handrail held by four hex-head screws and washers, all glued in place for an air-tight seal; a panel held by 111 miniscule screws and washers; and a rubber gasket. Then he had to cut the power supply’s ground wire, unlatch the channel locks holding it in place, slide it out perfectly flat, and slide in its replacement the same way, all without damaging any of the pins in the 120-pin connector.
Most challenging of all, he had to do it without leaving behind “a loose screw, a speck of dust or a particle of gas,” any of which could shut down Hubble’s eye in the sky.
NASA is famous for intense preparation, and Massimino had practiced the entire mission hundreds of times. Some of the practice runs involved physical mockups of the obstacles he would encounter. Others were performed underwater, to simulate the effects of weightlessness. The most valuable, he said, involved virtual reality – simulations that couldn’t be replicated physically on earth.
“We call them virtual reality simulations, but Dassault Systémes calls them virtual twins, which is a term I really like,” Massimino told his Florida audience. “Especially on my first flight, I felt like I was training for the biggest event in my professional life, the equivalent of the Super Bowl or the World Cup, but I had to play the game without ever walking onto the practice field.
“Thanks to the virtual training I had, the first time I saw Hubble in person I felt like I’d done the task hundreds of times. It helped us with designing our tools, planning our missions, finding and fixing the problems we hadn’t anticipated. It’s invaluable.”
That intense preparation proved vital on the day of the STIS repair spacewalk. The first three screws holding the handrail came out easily. The fourth one, dabbed with a bit too much glue years earlier, stuck fast. Unable to budge it, the power screwdriver stripped the head, leaving just a nub.
Massimino remembers a few moments of panic: would he be remembered forever as the astronaut who doomed Hubble?
Then his leadership lessons kicked in. He wasn’t alone; he had a great team behind him, on the shuttle and on Earth. He had a great purpose to strengthen his resolve. He was a master of persistence, enduring three failed applications and an intense program of retraining his vision before winning his spot as an astronaut, six years of training to get his first spacewalk assignment, and seven more years to earn his second trip. In addition to his teammates, he also could call on the experience gained through thousands of hours of physical and virtual training.
“No one particular thing about being an astronaut was difficult,” Massimino said. “It’s just that making mistakes along the way could carry such a large penalty. So it was important to understand that the only way you’re going to be successful is if you all work together. No one person could do it on their own. It took all of us, keeping the passion and the purpose in mind and never forgetting that, while individual accomplishment is good, what really matters is the mission.”
“No one person could do it on their own. It took all of us, keeping the passion and the purpose in mind and never forgetting that, while individual accomplishment is good, what really matters is the mission.”Mike Massimino
Former NASA Astronaut, speaking about the power of teamwork
As his teammates suggested a series of fixes, Massimino traveled the length of the shuttle – a delicate balancing act on a narrow rail – between the toolbox at one end of the service bay and the Hubble space telescope at the other. Terrified of heights (“not a great thing for an astronaut,” he jokes), he made the harrowing trip eight times.
But nothing they tried could budge the bolt. And, if they didn’t find a solution soon, Massimino knew he wouldn’t have enough life support remaining to finish the job.
Then a colleague called from Mission Control with an idea developed by the Earth-based team: Cover the screw with the tape you picked up on that last trip to the toolbox to catch any debris, he suggested, then grab the handle and pull it free.
Massimino – call sign MASS, in part because of his height – felt a surge of confidence. This he could do. He pulled on the handle twice to loosen it, then yanked. The handle came off cleanly, with just enough time remaining to complete the more difficult tasks.
Together, with persistence, planning, and purpose, the STS-125 crew’s teamwork saved astronomy.
Although his astronaut days are behind him, Massimino still marvels at the beauty and delicate atmosphere of Earth viewed from space. “It’s a place – a home – we all share. It’s also fragile, and we don’t have any other options.”
At the 3DEXPERIENCE Forum, he urged his audience to commit their companies’ engineering expertise to saving Earth, using virtual twins to design, test, refine and sustainably manufacture sustainable solutions to climate change.
“Everything I saw at the conference was important, whether you’re designing an electric car or figuring out how to build a factory with sustainability in mind,” Massimino said. “Every one of those companies is doing something worthwhile that makes the world a better place. That’s where the passion and the purpose comes from: keeping the big picture in mind.”
Massimino also has high hopes for the privatization of space.
“When we first heard that NASA had decided to put future launches into the hands of private industry, working with SpaceX, Boeing and several other companies, a lot of us didn’t like the idea,” he told the Florida audience. “But when we started to see what they could do we were pretty impressed. When private enterprise gets involved in things, they can look at challenges differently than the government can, and that has turned out to be a great change.”
Although private companies must be profitable to survive, Massimino also is confident that they will continue to put the interests of humanity ahead of profit. Both SpaceX and BlueOrigin, for example, have taken student experiments into space.
“The [private space companies] I’ve worked with are doing it, for the most part, for very good reasons,” he said. “They’re looking at it for exploration and discovery, and for ways to help preserve the Earth by looking at things we can do off the Earth, rather than polluting our home. They’re also increasing access to space so that people with bright ideas for new medicines and new materials can do their research.”
Technology plays an important role in enabling the privatization of space, Massimino said.
“The shuttle was primarily a manually flown vehicle. These spaceships are almost like amusement park rides; with a little bit of training you can get in and go. They’re safer. They require less training, so more people can go to space. They’re reusable, which improves sustainability and drives down the cost.
“You can’t use taxpayer dollars for everything, so you’re never going to be able to do everything you want to do in space without private enterprise,” he said. “Yes, they need to stay profitable and pay the bills, but they can take on a lot more than we [the US space program] ever could.”
Massimino’s parting words of wisdom to the 3DEXPERIENCE Forum audience?
“When things get tough and change is coming and you need to pivot, just remember how important the work you’re doing is. And always keep the big picture in mind.”
Around the world, companies are reporting a major shortage of skilled workers. In fact, according to research by McKinsey, 87% of companies say they already have a skills gap, or that they expect to have one in the next few years.
While the research finds that most organizations consider it a priority to address skills shortages, few say they really understand how to equip themselves with the skills they will need most. In fact, only a third of respondents say they are able to cope with the workforce disruptions resulting from technology and market trends.
The technology skills gap is a problem being felt even in the most technologically advanced cities. Take Boston, for example, a city dubbed by KPMG as one of the most likely in the world to become the leading technology innovation hub outside of Silicon Valley.
“In Boston, the robotics ecosystem in particular is growing exponentially, but there are simply not enough graduating students educated in STEM fields to fill positions,” said Joyce Sidopoulos, co-founder and vice president of programs and community at Massachusetts-based non-profit organization MassRobotics.
But Sidopoulos has a solution. She believes that the secret to bridging the technology skills gap is a large untapped pool of individuals that have historically failed to see an opportunity in the robotics industry: young women.
“The STEM workforce suffers from a lack of diversity,” Sidopoulos said. “We often hear that ‘you cannot be what you cannot see.’ That holds true in robotics. There are not many role models and not many peers who are female, especially of Black and Latinx origin.”
Sidopoulos is determined to turn this around. That’s why she helped to create the Jumpstart Fellowship Program – an initiative designed to address the technology skills gap by getting female students excited about robotics, and provide them with the experience they need to consider it as a career path.
“We want to provide opportunities for diverse high school girls to learn about careers in robotics and develop their professional networks through direct engagement with industry professionals,” Sidopoulos said. “Jumpstart provides technical training in the areas identified by robotics companies who in turn hire the students for internships. They learn in-demand skills such as CAD design, 3D printing, soldering, the use of prototyping hand tools, programming and simulation and project management.”
The program also offers professional development training, interview preparation and expectations setting. “Throughout the program, not only do participants get a summer internship, but they also take many field trips to robotics companies to get an idea of what it’s like to work at each and a feel for their company culture,” Sidopoulos said.
This practical experience is proving to be incredibly successful at giving young women confidence in their abilities, so that they are more likely to pursue robotics in their professional careers. But they aren’t the only ones who benefit; it’s also helping robotics companies like GreenSight – a Massachusetts-based aerial intelligence firm – to close the technology skills gap with talented workers while also making a noticeable difference in their diversity goals.
“To us, the lack of diversity in robotics is an obvious sign that a lot of high-quality talent simply is not able to break into the industry,” said Joel Pedlikin, co-founder and chief operating officer at GreenSight. “Jumpstart is a small but significant way for GreenSight to enlarge its pool of US robotics engineers. Years of experience have taught our company how to make excellent use of engineering co-ops and interns. The Jumpstart interns we’ve hired have made a significant contribution to our business.”
Sidopoulos attribubtes Jumpstart’s success MassRobotics’ commitment to working hand-in-hand with educators and local businesses. “We work with both traditional educators from Boston Public Schools and mentors from after-school programs. Meanwhile, local robotics businesses provide advice on the curriculum and detail the technical skills they are looking for,” she said. “We also ask that our robotics business collaborators provide summer internships with meaningful work and projects so that students feel they’ve accomplished something over their time at the company.”
Technical lessons are taught on Saturdays through most of the school year, as well as five straight days during the February vacation break when students visit those robotics companies who will be hiring summer interns from the program. “The curriculum is taught by a combination of people,” Sidopoulos said. “There’s our STEM manager, our lab manager, a hired contractor for soft skills such as networking, and volunteers from the robotics community, including an engineer from Dassault Systèmes’ SOLIDWORKS brand who teaches several modules. These are mostly taught in-person at MassRobotics, where students can access hand tools, 3D printers and other equipment.”
The pilot was limited to eight students because of COVID. “Following feedback from both students and employers, we have added some new elements to the curriculum,” Sidopoulos said. “We expanded the second cohort to include 17 students and, in May 2022, they completed their technical portion of the program and then headed off to their summer internships.”
Autonodyne, a company creating software for autonomous vehicles, is hosting one of these students.
“This summer, we have a returning participant who is now a rising second-year college student studying engineering,” said Steve Jacobson, the company’s founder and CEO. “She was with us last summer and made a real impact in our developmental engineering and flight test programs, so much so that we were able to bring her back this summer. She, and the Jumpstart program as a whole, have been a great help not just in our product development and therefore bottom line, but also in our efforts to increase our diversity. It feels like a win-win for both the company and the community.”
Of course, students are benefiting too. “Entering the professional world is not easy, but this program has worked with us to make this path a lot easier,” said a student from the second cohort. “It’s creating a safe space where we can share our struggles, accomplishments, works we’re proud of and projects that we wished we did differently.”
Another student praises the program’s efforts around diversity. “It is important for fellowships like this to exist because it creates a space for women of color to bond over their knowledge of STEM,” she said. “Together, my cohort overcame our shyness and worked as one unit to successfully complete a rigorous program.”
MassRobotics is now planning its third cohort for the 2022-2023 school year, hoping to expand to 30 students.
“We will continue to refine our curriculum to match the needs of employers,” Sidopoulos said. “Our goals remain the same: to provide opportunities for diverse Massachusetts high school girls to learn about careers in robotics and develop their professional networks through direct engagement with industry professionals.”
For employers who get involved in programs like Jumpstart and invest in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives more broadly, the payoff goes far beyond hitting benchmarks: they realize profound improvements on innovation, productivity and, eventually, their bottom line. As Ayanna Howard wrote in an article for MIT Sloan Management Review, "When organizations describe why diversity matters in the human relations context, even when it’s viewed purely from a business perspective, they usually discuss how different perspectives from a diverse group of people combined together result in better outcomes, better products, and better services. Why should it be any different with robotics?"
An emerging trend in computer-assisted design called generative design is unleashing the creative powers of innovators around the world – and is destined to have major impact in the design and engineering labs at companies of all shapes and sizes.
Generative design represents an evolution from the previous generation of computer-assisted design, called parametric design. As an approach, generative design is an iterative design process that’s been around for decades. But new advances in raw computing power and in 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, are leading to wider adoption in multiple industries.
So what is generative design? It’s a process in which designers give their computers specifications and rules governing space, force and load, materials and more, and then allow the computers to generate alternatives. The designer then iterates on these options by adjusting the rules that generated them. It’s a fast and evolutionary process that results in buildings whose shapes defy human comprehension, retail displays that mesmerize shoppers, lightweight machine parts and personal objects whose shapes are futuristic, yet somehow nature-inspired.
“We get worried about the term ‘intelligence,’ thinking the machine is going to be doing the creative bit, not us. The machine is an adviser. It’s a collaborator. It’s just helping.”Arthur Mamou-Mani
“It’s a whole field of design that uses mathematics and the power of the computer to generate projects from sets of rules or modules,” said Arthur Mamou-Mani, a French architect whose company, Mamou-Mani Ltd., is based in London. “We try not to impose stuff on the computer, but we try to work with the computer. It’s designing from the bottom up rather than designing from the top down.”
Mamou-Mani’s firm specializes in digitally designed and fabricated architecture, custom products and interfaces. In the fall of 2021, Mamou-Mani partnered with Dassault Systèmes to design and install a visually stunning artistic exhibit called AURORA as part of the London Design Museum’s “Waste Age” exhibit. Composed of stylized biodegradable plastic made from fermented corn sugar, AURORA shimmered as if it were its own constellation in the night sky. Yet Mamou-Mani was determined to minimize its environmental impact and defined parameters that specifically guided his computers to design something that was both beautiful and environmentally friendly.
“If you have the right database, you can measure the exact carbon footprint of everything you create as an architect or designer,” Mamou-Mani explained. “We measured the total carbon footprint not just of the piece itself but also the transportation of it, what happens after the exhibit ends,--each one of the components, the nuts and bolts.”
The implications of generative design extend far beyond architecture. Kate Reed, an artist-in-residence at the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab’s Boston FabLab, uses generative design to create wearables on the basis of biomimicry, which imitates objects in the natural world, such as barnacles or mushrooms.
Reed got her start making wearable computers and machines at an early age — even getting an invitation to the White House for a 3D-printed wheelchair arm she designed as a teen. But as her generative design tools have evolved, so have her creative aspirations. After creating a collection of wearables generated with logic based on the movements of slime mold, Reed was inspired in an entirely new direction: 3D-printing computer circuits with slime mold – circuits that can be worn on the human body.
Biologists have documented how every living entity grows, but Reed has taken it one step further. “We know how things grow and how things evolve,” she said. “I was able to translate this into a process we can use in the computational space. You can play God a little bit.”
The origins of generative design are multi-faceted. The aerospace industry has played a role because of its need for precise parts that are lightweight and strong, yet can withstand high temperatures in an engine. Seeking to innovate, architects including Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid have borrowed the aerospace industry’s design tools and processes to push the boundaries of what’s possible for building projects. The process results in breathtaking buildings with incredible shapes and forms, while the computational generative design process saves time and money.
Depending on the manufacturing process – casting, forging, additive manufacturing – generative design can adapt shapes to match specifications and constraints in ways that would be hard to imagine using more traditional subtractive manufacturing processes.
One key concept developed in the aircraft industry is latticing, which borrows from the structure of crystals to create patterns that deliver great strength despite extensive empty space.
3D printing has accelerated the trend because parts that once were “carved” out of chunks of metal, plastic or wood can now be 3D printed in lattices that are just as strong, yet lighter and more visually interesting. Generative design, in turn, allows inventors to find just the right combination of structure and blank space to accomplish their goals quickly with minimal material.
The combination of 3D-printing and rapid, cost-effective generative design, meanwhile, is expanding the affordable applications of lattice structures. Designers are 3D-printing chairs that are super-light yet can support any normal human weight, thanks to the lattice structure’s ability to disperse weight. Shoe companies are experimenting with generative design to create sandals and shoes that are unique in appearance and customized to each individual foot shape, yet also lightweight and strong. The medical equipment industry is beginning to use the combination of generative design and 3D printing to generate custom prosthetics.
Generative design also is gaining momentum in the automotive, retail and industrial equipment industries and beyond. In short, engineers in almost every manufacturing industry are using generative design to reshape the world in creative, safe and sustainable ways.
When it came on the market, computer-aided design (CAD) revolutionized the design process by enabling designers to create, modify, analyze and optimize their designs in record time. Generative design is an evolution to a more cognitive, augmented design with a science-based approach. It’s a partnership between humans and machines.
Letting the computer come up with solutions can be an unsettling new approach for creatives who traditionally have managed and refined every detail of a design.
“We get worried about the term ‘intelligence,’ thinking the machine is going to be doing the creative bit, not us,” Mamou-Mani said. “But the machine is an adviser. It’s a collaborator. It’s just helping. We have quite big egos as architects, as creative persons; we think everything comes from our own brains.”
If the architect establishes the rules and the specifications, however, then evaluates and refines the end result, the computer is not truly in charge, he said.
Reed, meanwhile, takes generative design yet another step, inviting nature into the process as well. To make her wearable designs feel more compatible with a human being, she drew inspiration from nature. Combining biomimicry with generative design, she realized she could program her generative design tools with the rules of how slime grows, then put the computer to work generating better and better designs.
The more nature inspired her work, the more she asked herself, “Why am I trying to copy nature? Why not let Nature design it herself?”
“We know how things grow and how things evolve. I was able to translate this into a process we can use in the computational space. You can play God a little bit.”Kate Reed
That concept underpins Reed’s work with slime mold: 3D printing it in the form of electronic circuits that can be worn by humans would open a new chapter in the engagement between humans and computing.
One clear overall payoff from the era of generative design – especially when combined with biomimicry – is that the objects people use and look at every day, and the buildings they live and work in, will become more esthetically pleasing. Why? Because they will be more natural in shape, rather than merely functional.
“One of the reasons that modern buildings are so dull and lifeless is because we were constrained by mass production,” Mamou-Mani said. “People thought, ‘Let’s just make mass-produced, factory-produced buildings that are just focused on the functionality.’ We completely lost track of the soul, the visually pleasing proportions and the sophistication craft that cathedrals would offer.”
Like Reed and Mamou-Mani, their fellow creative innovators aim to change all that. Past masters wielded chisels, paintbrushes and mosaics to create their art. Increasingly, future masters will add computers to their toolboxes.
No matter how iconic the great structures of civilization, time can erase the knowledge, history and culture stored in their stones in the span of a heartbeat.
Time’s ravages are visible at significant sites worldwide: The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD buried Pompeii. A 1349 earthquake collapsed the south side of the Roman Colosseum. Five fires have raged through Okinawa’s Shuri Castle, most recently in 2019. Many of the stones of Porta Nigra, the great Roman gate in Trier, Germany, were carted away for re-use in other structures. History has forgotten whether earthquakes or war collapsed the towering roof of India’s Konark Sun Temple. And if the Hanging Gardens of Babylon ever existed, the ages have erased any hint of where they stood.
Thanks to the research and hard work of six student teams, however, the Living Heritage challenge allows the world to once again experience these five UNESCO World Heritage sites, plus one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as those who built and used them did . . . but this time in virtual reality. Their efforts are revealed today in an online exhibition titled “Living Heritage: A treasure for future generations,” the latest installment in Dassault Systèmes’ 10-act “The Only Progress is Human” campaign.
The overall campaign is designed to demonstrate the power of 3D virtual twin experiences to model, test and improve humanity’s response to 10 key global challenges. The Living Heritage challenge achieved this by immersing students in the knowledge and know-how of the civilizations that built the six iconic sites, which they then used to create virtual twins of the structures. Now their discoveries offer people everywhere a chance to explore these sites’ contribution to humanity’s shared cultural history.
“The arc of human progress is drawn not only by the inventions and innovations that we are able to conceive, but also by the lessons that our shared history teaches us,” said Victoire de Margerie, vice president of corporate marketing, branding and communications at Dassault Systèmes (3DS). “Virtual worlds offer us powerful tools to do both: gain a greater understanding of our past, and make the visionary models and real-world changes that will result in a better future for generations to come.”
The Living Heritage challenge was organized by the corporate communications team and 3DEXPERIENCE EDU, which provides students and educators with training on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform.
“We work with about 7 million students every year from more than 50,000 academic institutions in the world,” said Valérie Ferret, vice president of 3DEXPERIENCE EDU. “Thanks to their involvement in the Living Heritage Act, these students developed key skills to work in collaborative projects and with multiple disciplines. With their amazing work, not only we are able to better understand treasures from the past; we can also trust to them to create a more sustainable future.”
“Virtual worlds offer us powerful tools to gain a greater understanding of our past, and make the visionary models and real-world changes that will result in a better future for generations to come.”Victoire de Margerie, Vice President, Corporate Marketing, Branding and Communications, Dassault Systèmes
For members of the six student teams, participating in the challenge required a combination of historical detective work, digital archaeology, remote online collaboration, and an aggressive six-month deadline. During that time, the teams used the 3DEXPERIENCE platform to manage their work and create their virtual twin experiences.
Several of the team members are skilled robot-builders, but few had previous experience with the platform. Each team was paired with a 3DS employee who mentored the students in how to approach their projects and make best use of the platform’s capabilities. The skills they practiced – including online collaboration and project management – are engineering work experiences vital to preparing the Workforce of the Future. The projects also prepared the students to earn their 3DEXPERIENCE platform certifications.
“Due to the ongoing pandemic we couldn’t meet each other, so we had to work remotely,” said Juan Pablo Rojas Ibarra, leader of the Mexico team that reimagined the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. “We used the 3DEXPERIENCE platform’s cloud-based system [to collaborate and] to divide the work into smaller pieces.”
“3DEXPERIENCE really showed us the power of working online and working together,” said Rens Kappert, leader of the Netherlands team that modeled key portions of Pompeii. “In that sense, it was the only reason we were able to accomplish what we did.”
The teams used the platform to collect all of their research, identify and assign tasks, manage progress toward project milestones and create scientifically accurate 3D models of their chosen sites.
“You have everything you need in one place, like project planning to build the virtual reality,” said Ron Fraeser, student leader of the German team that modeled the ancient Roman gate Porta Nigra, the only one of four still standing in Trier.
“Because of the unique shape of the roof, we had a hard time making it look like a real thing,” said Jun Suzuki, leader of the Japan team that modeled Shuri Castle. “But when we had problems, our mentors were there to help. We also posted questions to the Swym Community.” Communities, a feature of the platform, gave the teams a chance to solicit advice not only from their assigned mentors, but also from 3DS employees worldwide.
“Societies, culture, art . . . everything contributes to what we are today,” said Philippe Cocatrix, 3DEXPERIENCE EDU sales director for Japan and one of the Dassault Systèmes volunteers who mentored the six student teams. That made the Living Heritage challenge “a very unique opportunity to do something meaningful.”
The project “is a way to bring back to life, to bring back into focus, ancient knowledge that our civilizations no longer possess,” said Dragos Dascalu, Euronorth industry process consultant and mentor to the Netherlands team, which modeled Pompeii.
“Seeing students use the platform in ways that even I hadn’t anticipated, and validating that we’re building the right stuff, that was super cool,” said Sam O’Neill, 3DEXPERIENCE Works industry process consultant and mentor to the USA team.
Pedro Diez Cocero, industry solutions experience manager for 3DS in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction industry, and mentor to the Mexico team said “I found myself playing with the idea of how I would tackle the challenge myself, and that made me think that I could help students to deliver the challenge.”
The students’ comments about their experiences are evidence that their mentors, the history they unearthed and the sites they modeled affected how they see history’s relevance to life today.
“Getting a chance to recreate one of the most iconic buildings in the world was really inspiring for us,” said Shoumik Kundu, student leader of the USA team that modeled the Roman Colosseum. “We’ve all read in our textbooks about how so many naval battles were re-created [there]. Romans would go there for entertainment. We wanted to kind of re-create that.”
“The Hanging Gardens are one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, and for us the most mysterious one,” said Ibarra, leader of the Hanging Gardens team. “We don’t have proof that they ever existed; we only have some ancient text. To solve this, we had to use our imagination and creativity to create a model that we believe the Hanging Gardens looked like.”
“Looking back at these sites is very valuable,” Kappert said of his team’s work on Pompeii. “There’s still some stuff to be found and some great details to be discovered.”
Sometimes, as for Fraeser, those discoveries are personal – and emotional.
“To experience the 3D model of Porta Nigra through virtual reality . . . it is an incredible experience,” he said. “I hope that others can feel the same thing that I feel when I stand in front of (our virtual model of) the Porta Nigra.”
If they do, the teams have indeed created a treasure for future generations.
It’s 7 a.m. in Southern California and four road warriors, delighted to avoid the hour-long slog from Newport Beach to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), board a piloted electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle operating from an Orange County vertiport.
Whisper quiet, the six-rotor aircraft lifts off, transitions to horizontal flight, climbs to a designated “lane” for commercial eVTOL vehicles, and whisks the passengers to LAX, some 46 miles away, in just 15 minutes. With a range of up to 250 miles, depending on the aircraft and payload requirements, eVTOL vehicles enable intra-city advanced air mobility, as well as longer trips to outlying areas and nearby cities.
If this sounds like a scenario set decades in the future, think again. A quiet revolution in air transportation is under way, and commercial eVTOL vehicles – electric air taxis, basically – could become a reality within the next few years, regulators, vehicle developers and industry analysts agree.
“This is real,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said. “We anticipate that there’s a good possibility – I would say a high likelihood – that we will have the first designs certified in 2023 and could see the first Advanced and Urban Air Mobility (AAM/UAM) operations as early as 2024.”
Nearly every major aerospace airframe manufacturer has eVTOL plays. Airbus has its CityAirbus technology demonstrator, Bell Helicopter has a passenger eVTOL called Nexus, and Boeing has an autonomous eVTOL joint venture with Wisk.
An increasing number of commercial airlines are also getting in on the action by placing conditional orders for hundreds of the eVTOL vehicles that are nearing certification.
For instance, JetBlue Airways is helping finance Joby Aviation’s development of an all-electric aircraft through its JetBlue Technology Ventures Fund. United Airlines, together with its regional partner Mesa Airlines, preordered 200 of Archer Aviation’s Maker electric air taxis. American Airlines ordered up to 250 VA-X4 vehicles being developed by Vertical Aerospace. Most recently, Lilium inked a US $1 billion (€906.85 million) agreement with Azul, a major Brazilian airline, which includes pre-orders for 220 of Lilium’s electric aircraft.
American Airlines ordered up to 250 VA-X4 vehicles being developed by Vertical Aerospace. Most recently, Lilium inked a US $1 billion (€906.85 million) agreement with Azul, a major Brazilian airline, which includes pre-orders for 220 of Lilium’s electric aircraft.
Airlines worldwide envision transporting passengers from urban vertiports to nearby airports in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York , Paris, Sao Paulo and Singapore. Urban Air-Port’s first eVTOL “port” is scheduled to open in June 2022 in Coventry, near London. Cowen aerospace analyst Cai Von Rumohr estimates that 93% of the world’s top 100 airports are located within 20 miles of their city centers.
As the eVTOL sector evolves, industry analysts expect to see manufacturers and airline partners forge their own route systems. Collectively, these networks are expected to form an ever- expanding eVTOL ecosystem in cities worldwide. “The spectrum of different ways [eVTOL aircraft] can be used is absolutely huge,” said Craig Jenks, president of New York-based consultancy Airline/Aircraft Projects.
Even automotive companies, including Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, haven’t been shy about their eVTOL ambitions. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a meaningful move from Ford or General Motors in 2022,” said Cyrus Sigari, co-founder and managing partner of UP. Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm.
Could air taxis one day be as commonplace as traditional ones? “It’s a Wright Brothers era,” Uber CEO Mark Moore said. “The fact that car companies are entering the UAM business speaks volumes, and in a year or two every single automotive company will be involved in some way in urban air mobility.”
eVTOL vehicles have long been a vision of aviation entrepreneurs. Major advances in battery technology and lightweight composite materials, as well as the relatively low operating costs of electric engines, are making the vision possible.
Remarkably, the idea of aerial urban ride-sharing was little more than a concept five years ago. The aviation/aerospace industry historically has taken decades to develop successful new aircraft and air transportation modes in evolutionary cycles of innovation that built upon one another, but eVTOL platforms are another story. “They have evolved at an extraordinary speed in a very short period,” said Ken Witcher, dean of the College of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Investors, anticipating the inauguration of commercial services in the mid-2020s, poured more than US$6 billion (€5.44 billion) into the emerging AAM/UAM sector in 2021, Morgan Stanley aerospace analyst Kristine Liwag said. “Worldwide, the addressable market potential over the next 10 to 15 years is extraordinarily large, based on continued improvements in battery and materials technology, autonomy and growth of final-mile business models,” she said.
An estimated 200 eVTOL commercial projects are underway worldwide, according to the Vertical Flight Society (VFS), the professional society for the advancement of vertical flight technology and its useful application worldwide. Of these, about a dozen are considered frontrunners, with designs spanning a range of configurations and business models.
VSF, which is based in the Washington, D.C. area, recognizes several broad categories, both winged and wingless. All of them feature a sleek aerodynamic pod that can accommodate a pilot and up to six passengers.
-Carrying capacity, from 0 to 7+ passengers
-Energy source, including electric/batteries; electric hybrid; and electric/hydrogen
-Thrust type, including vectored thrust; lift and cruise; wingless; hover bikes and personal flying devices; and electric helicopters
-Pilot type: autonomous or piloted
Unlike fuel-powered rotorcraft, otherwise known as helicopters, eVTOL vehicles emit zero emissions and are ultra-quiet. Developers also expect them to be cheaper to operate. The reason? Electric motors for UAM vehicles are simpler to manufacture than the gas turbines that power many comparably sized rotorcraft. In addition, eVTOL aircraft have fewer critical components that require regular inspection and replacement, which adds significantly to the cost of operating rotorcrafts.
Moreover, eVTOL aircraft are expected to be safer than helicopters due to their redundant flight controls and integrated distributed propulsion systems, which employ multiple rotors for vertical lift, versus a helicopter’s single rotor. This eliminates the single point of mechanical failure risk inherent in many helicopter designs.
eVTOL proponents believe these differentiators will enable urban air mobility operations to flourish at a scale that simply hasn’t been possible with rotorcraft. That doesn’t mean helicopters will disappear; they will continue to be a valuable tool, militarily and in civil applications. In addition, their size, speed, range and cabin comfort will ensure that they remain a preferred mode of transportation in the service of many businesses and individuals, including air ambulances. But eVTOLs may become the vehicle of choice for short commutes in congested urban areas.
Autonomous, pilotless passenger transport, the holy grail of UAM, will take longer. Artificial intelligence will be key, Uber’s Moore said. Regulators have just started to examine this next phase of eVTOL’s evolution, issuing their first usable guidance on requirements for safety-related machine learning applications.
“The companies developing these vehicles have clearly stated that [piloted operations] is the first step, and the second step [will be] unmanned air taxis,” said Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA),.
“It’s a Wright Brothers era. The fact that car companies are entering the UAM business speaks volumes, and in a year or two every single automotive company will be involved in some way in urban air mobility.”
Mark Moore, Uber CEO
The FAA currently is working with seven companies to certify Advanced Air Mobility/Urban Air Mobility vehicle designs, the FAA’s Dickson said. These include piloted and autonomous passenger and cargo aircraft. Across the Atlantic, EASA is working with about 24 developers of both passenger-carrying eVTOLs and autonomous aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, intended for package delivery.
While all players express high confidence that eVTOL platforms will transition to commercial operations within the next few years, a lot of work remains to be done before such expectations come to fruition.
Air traffic management rules will need to be developed and infrastructure built to support eVTOL operations, Ky noted. Another imperative is public acceptance. Widespread use of eVTOL aircraft will depend on individual communities and their willingness to allow them to fly overhead, said James Sherman, the Vertical Flight Society’s director of strategic development. “We have to overcome that and allow the public to see these vehicles in operation and how they can benefit from them.”
Then there’s the production readiness of manufacturers. As Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, put it: “Prototypes are easy. Scaling production is hard.”
Even with all of these challenges, this much is certain: eVTOL-enabled urban air mobility is on course to become one of the most transformational forces in aviation since the introduction of commercial jet airplane travel in the 1950s.
Discerning customers are demanding seamless interactions with companies, so improving the customer experience was a top priority for Kindof. The Italian producer of contemporary and sustainable furniture wanted to show customers how easily it could personalize their furniture, but knew the experience had to be flawless.
“It was key for us to be able to show this on our e-commerce website and in our product brochure, but we knew it wouldn’t be feasible to make each piece of furniture in every different color and finish combination,” said Camilla Mazzola, brand and marketing manager at Kindof.
After discovering the technology at a design technology trade expo in Milan, Kindof implemented the 3DEXPERIENCE platform from Dassault Systèmes to showcase photorealistic virtual imagery of its products and develop an effective go-to-market strategy. It was helped in this venture by IDeCOM, also based in Italy, which provides project management and consultancy within the civil engineering industry. One key advantage: Kindof and IDeCOM can collaborate on all of their shared projects on the platform.
“We have a private community and chat on the IFWE Loop, which we use to easily share files,” Mazzola said. The IFWE Loop is a feature of the platform that facilitates and tracks all collaboration and communication with colleagues and partners in one shared but private space. For example, the IFWE Loop makes it easy to collaborate with IDeCOM.
“IDeCOM answers all my queries and is really patient with me, allowing me to make modifications to get the right result,” Mazzola said. “One day, for example, I gave them the measurements and details for one model; then something changed, and they modified it immediately. They are very responsive and help me get the best results.”
Kindof is already seeing the benefits of the platform; Mazzola said it has “saved several months of additional work.” The furniture producer also is considering using the platform to manage its product design processes.
“At the moment, we draw the designs and make the prototypes from sketches,” she said. “In the future we could create them using 3D models, which would allow us to truly visualize a product before it’s made.”
Kindof’s experience is increasingly typical, as other companies that have adopted business innovation platforms to improve internal operations discover it can manage external interactions as well, including the ability to build customer relationships.
“We have a private community and chat on the IFWE Loop, which we use to easily share files,”Camilla Mazzola, Brand and Marketing Manager, Kindof.
“You have to keep your customers happy,” said Peter Bilello, president and CEO of product lifecycle management consulting and research firm CIMdata. “The challenge of building better B2B customer relationships is tying people and information together. You can have a great product; but if your customers have a bad experience interacting with the company, people turn off.”
By extending the social collaboration benefits of business platforms to the entire value network, Bilello said, companies can transform their relationships.
“For all B2B customer communication, you want it to be clear, concise and valid,” he said. “A collaborative platform can be very helpful in those situations as it makes the whole process quicker, with faster feedback and [the ability to] minimize issues that arise from bad communication that would have been historically done via separate systems.”
Swedish software and consulting company SolidEngineer is also seeing the positive impact of “platforming its business” to interact with clients, founder Björn Lindwall said. After adopting a single platform that facilitates collaboration among its entire workforce, SolidEngineer wanted to extend those benefits to its customer relationships as well.
“We use the platform to show customers how to use a digital solution and work with ideas that have been generated,” said Pernilla Ahlberg, a management consultant who works with SolidEngineer’s clients to develop innovation strategies. “The difficulty we had previously was managing all of the ideas. However, the idea-management tool on the platform allows us to input all the ideas, collaborate on them, and then use a funnel tool to easily see when an idea is mature and ready to set up as a project.”
Once an idea becomes a project, the platform facilitates project planning among all of SolidEngineer’s stakeholders, both internal and external. The platform’s planning capabilities allow the company’s teams to see how a project is progressing, identify areas of concern and make real-time, informed decisions, said Mie Sörqvist, SolidEngineer’s chief technology officer of project data management projects. At key points, the team can even share its progress and brainstorm additional ideas with customers and partners, all via the platform.
Because the platform also generates and supports 3D virtual twin experiences – scientifically accurate simulations of product designs and the environments where they will operate, allowing users to “experience” a product before it exists – communication among people from different disciplines becomes easier.
“I can share designs with other people in a community we have created for feedback,” designer Alice Berglund said. “With the design on the platform, I then use the project planning tool to keep track of tasks and update them so my manager can see, at a glance, the status of the project.”
RS Components, a UK-based distributor of electronic, electrical and industrial components, is employing its platform’s collaboration capabilities internally on some projects, including DesignSpark, the company’s design-engineering community. But RS Components has also used its platform to demonstrate in-development projects to customers and suppliers and receive valuable feedback.
“Previously, our old experiences were closed and siloed,” said Mike Bray, group lead of innovation and research and development, who also leads the company’s DesignSpark community. “By moving to a collaboration platform, it has produced a much more communicative and shareable experience.”
Bray describes the platform as a “transformer.”
“Pooling data between different organizations and clients makes our experiences much more seamless,” he said. “Our base in Texas has developed a new technical lab capability, and the reaction to the initial set of virtual demos has been very positive from suppliers and customers. The platform has allowed us to position our technical support capabilities in a very different light from a lot of our competitors.”
Although RS Components’ experiments in external collaboration are in their infancy, “the plan is to phase the platform rollout across our organization and other parts of our customer base,” Bray said. “The platform gives us the ability to plan and see emerging design trends, as well as their application. This is a hugely valuable insight for our business, and the manufacturers and suppliers that we work with on DesignSpark. It’s a great fit for us.”
The trend of organizations expanding their business collaboration platforms to encompass external collaborations and communications will become more common in future, CIMdata’s Bilello said. Key industries to watch for the trend, he predicts, include automotive and aerospace.
“It can really drive their business significantly as they get linked to others that have other disciplines and core competencies,” he said. “Platforms will continue to evolve, especially as the technology becomes more readily available. And there’s no question that by breaking down silos and connecting people and information, business collaboration platforms will help the companies deploying them to adapt quickly to disruption – whatever form that comes in next.”
Wearing virtual-reality goggles in near-darkness, they look up, reach out, marvel, then drop to their hands and knees and crawl.
“I’m trying to move in a cavity that’s really narrow,” exclaims one man on all fours, despite the fact that he is on the carpeted floor of a 150 square meter (1,600 square foot) room with tall ceilings. “It’s very small. It’s very cramped!”
“There is almost a sensory experience, although we’re in a space with no sensations,” a woman observes.
“We still have this information in our brain that tells us, ‘Watch out; there’s a wall,’” a second man says. “But, as the experience goes on, you get used to it; you don’t question it anymore, and you admire it all.”
“It” is a life-sized virtual reality (VR) experience of Lascaux Cave, a Paleolithic treasure near Montignac, France, that has been closed to the public since 1963. Following the cave’s discovery in 1940, more than 15 years of daily foot traffic and exposure to human respiration, electric lights and outside air threatened to destroy its 1,900 paintings and etchings, created 18,000 to 20,000 years ago and collectively described as “the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric times.”
For its own protection, officials of La Direction régionale des affaires culturelle Nouvelle-Aquitaine (the New Aquitaine Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs), part of the French Ministère de la Culture (Ministry of Culture), keep the 235-meter (770-foot) cave network closed to the public. The prohibitions are almost absolute, limiting even preservationists and researchers to a total of 200 hours per year in the cave, for brief visits of no more than two people at a time.
Restricting access helped to save the cave paintings, but limited in-person research and real-time collaboration among larger groups of scientists and researchers. Now, however, a virtual reality tour of Lascaux Cave offers a new way to experience all of Lascaux’s twists, turns and cramped spaces as if you were there, without any risk to the cave or its visitors.
In the decades since the cave closed, experts with the French government developed a series of strategies for exposing the world to Lascaux’s treasures – without exposing those treasures to the world.
Lascaux II opened in 1982. This physical reconstruction of the cave is located on the hill of Lascaux, only a few hundred meters from the cave itself. In 2012, sections of the cave not reproduced in Lascaux II were presented to the public in facsimiles; the global tour of that exhibition is known as Lascaux III. Since December 2016, a nearly complete facsimile of the cave, plus various multimedia tools about Lascaux, have been available in the Centre International de l’Art Parietal, known as Lascaux IV.
In 2013, at about the same time that Lascaux III began its tour, the cave was digitally scanned in 3D. Recently, officials shared the scans with Dassault Systèmes, which develops 3D computer software for use in business and industry and has applied its technology to many archaeological and cultural heritage projects. These include 3D “virtual twins” – scientifically accurate computer simulations – of the Great Pyramid of Khufu; the complete Giza plain; Paris from the Iron Age to the 19th century; and a 3D virtualization of how Allied forces constructed a temporary port for disembarking troops and supplies following the Normandy invasion in World War II.
“We have always used cultural projects to see how we can manage innovation, and to get our engineers to ask new questions,” said Mehdi Tayoubi, Dassault Systèmes’ vice president of innovation. “Talking to new people – archaeologists, historians, artists – and creating fresh experiences is a fruitful way to drive innovation and unconventional collaborations that raise new kinds of questions.”
Converting the 3D scans of Lascaux Cave into an immersive experience was an opportunity for Dassault Systèmes to help Ministére de la culture “reopen” it to the public, but also to test and refine a prototype VR software kit the company had developed. The kit allows non-expert users to create their own 3D VR simulations from simple building blocks. Importantly for the Lascaux Cave experience, the kit uses avatars to represent multiple users, allowing each person in a group to know where their colleagues are while immersed. This awareness allows visitors to the virtual cave to move freely without bumping into one another or the walls, despite goggles that prevent them from seeing their real-life surroundings.
The experience, currently housed in a room at the Cite de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (City of Architecture and Heritage) near the Eiffel Tower, employs an OptiTrack camera system to monitor each participant’s position in relation to their peers. Inside their VR goggles, each participant sees not only the cave, but avatars of the other six people in each group, plus a guide.
In developing the experience, Tayoubi’s team discovered that the technology works best when operated by a guide, who can answer questions in real time and highlight specific images just by pointing a finger at them. To see distant images in more detail, the guide touches a control panel to “lift” a group toward a ceiling or move them closer to a wall.
Because the experience is virtual, guides can safely take their tour groups to areas of the cave in virtual reality that have never been accessible to the public – even when the cave itself was open to visitors.
“We have two sections that have not been seen (by the public) before,” said Muriel Mauriac, the cave’s lead conservator with DRAC Nouvelle-Aquitaine. “No one could access them because you needed to find your way through very narrow passages.”
For researchers, the VR experience is – in some ways – better than the real thing.
“Indeed, when you go into the cave you can’t take the time that you take here,” Mauriac said. “You can come as close as possible to the engravings. In the cave we are sometimes 5-6 meters (16-20 feet) away from a vault; here you can really be in direct contact with the walls and with the works and see some incredible details of workmanship.”
“It enables multiple visits to the cave, and you can have 3, 4, 5 colleagues – even more – which you can’t do in the real cave.”Jean-Christophe Portais, heritage engineer, DRAC Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Because the VR experience also allows multiple people to interact while immersed, it enhances collaboration for researchers and conservators.
“It’s amazing,” said Jean-Christophe Portais, DRAC’s heritage engineer for Conservation régionale des monuments historiques (regional conservation of historical monuments). “It enables multiple visits to the cave, and you can have 3, 4, 5 colleagues – even more – which you can’t do in the real cave.”
The ability to collaborate with others during the experience is invaluable, said Delphine Lacanette, a researcher and teacher with Bordeaux INP, France’s National School of Electronics, Computers, Telecommunications, Mathematics and Mechanics. “For those of us who study the cave, we can talk to each other and discuss the work while it is in progress,” she said. “It’s really very rewarding and complementary” to researchers’ brief visits inside the actual cave.
The life-size Lascaux Cave virtual reality exhibition is open to the public by reservation on weekends and French holiday weeks. Click here to schedule a tour and buy tickets. The tour is open to those with limited mobility impairments, but is not recommended for those with hearing or visual issues.
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The communication systems that most manufacturers rely on to operate their factories have been cobbled together over decades, with a broad mix of technologies that can be difficult to manage.
It's a reality that can make the switch to 5G networks complex. 5G benefits manufacturers by delivering the fast, flexible and reliable Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) operating strategies required by fast-changing markets. But disconnect the wrong network in the wrong way and your factory could grind to a halt. That's a daunting prospect when unexpected downtime already costs manufacturers an estimated $50 billion in lost production each year, according to a recent study conducted for Emerson by WSJ Custom Studio.
How to prevent such a calamity? Some consulting firms and telco suppliers, including Accenture and Nokia, offer 5G network planning with coverage and performance simulation. Those, combined with virtual twins of factory operations, help customers in minimizing the risk when deploying a 5G network.
Want to learn more about how 5G and virtual twins enable a smooth transition to IIoT? Click here
Combining virtual twins – scientifically accurate and predictive models – into its 5G implementation proposals is an offer Accenture has dubbed “IoT in a box.” By precisely documenting the networks factories already have and how they interact, virtual twins – also known as digital twins – enable consultants and suppliers to test and validate step-by-step paths for replacing them with 5G. Best of all, virtual twins continue to pay dividends long after the 5G transition ends, providing insights for managing current operations and enabling virtual planning and testing for future evolutions.
“If [decision-makers] can simulate in the digital twin to get a credible proof of what the real-world impact will be, that helps them.”Sanjoy Paul, Managing Director, Systems and Platforms R&D, Accenture Labs
“For a corporate decision-maker, having a digital twin allows him or her to ask, ‘If I replace these parts of the factory with 5G, what impact do I see? What is my return on investment?’” said Sanjoy Paul, managing director of Systems and Platforms R&D for Accenture Labs. “The people who are the decision-makers really want clear evidence. They want to be sure. If they can simulate in the digital twin to get a credible proof of what the real-world impact will be, that helps them.”
The latest 5G standards promise many advantages for manufacturers, including real-time machine control. 5G is roughly 100 times faster than current cellular wireless communications and can support up to 1 million devices per square kilometer, about 10 times more than possible with existing cellular networks. The combination of speed and ubiquity enables significant advantages in maintenance, manufacturing flexibility, and worker safety and training.
Among the benefits identified by Nokia: the ability to understand and control physical assets for improved efficiency, productivity and safety; improved business continuity in the face of shifting market or environmental conditions; improved worker safety, especially where humans and autonomous robots share the same work space.
“Machines on the shop floor operate at a low latency, meaning that the signals from the controller to the machines and vice versa are transmitted very fast,” Accenture’s Paul said. “They measure time in microseconds and milliseconds. Then there are IT systems that collect operational data from the machines on the shop floor, aggregate the data and provide high-level performance metrics in the form of a dashboard view of operations every 30 minutes or once an hour. For these two systems to communicate efficiently, you need a gateway which can translate the information from the machines on the factory floor into something that can be understood and interpreted correctly by the IT system.”
“You want to enable connected workers with real-time data and augmented reality. Providing real-time guidance to workers in the plant . . . will require the ultralow latency and high bandwidth of 5G.”Guilherme Pizzato, Ecosystem Partner Lead, Nokia
As manufacturing operations evolve from “after the fact” reporting, which occurs every hour or shift, to real-time optimization, which leverages the wealth of real-time data exposed by modern equipment, 5G will be an attractive option. Add the trend toward reconfigurable plants, with mobile equipment being moved around continuously, and 5G becomes an imperative.
Nokia built a virtual twin of its manufacturing process at its factory in Oulu, Finland in 2019. The factory makes the company’s prototype products, including new base stations for wireless systems. Because it is constantly shifting the mix of what it makes, managers must routinely reconfigure its manufacturing lines as well. Relying on fixed cable lines for machine communications, which can require many days to reconfigure, was not an option.
The company originally tried Wi-Fi, but “when you started changing the layout of the factory, you had blind spots,” said Guilherme Pizzato, ecosystem partner lead at Nokia. “The mobile robots were stopping.” Nokia then upgraded the factory to 4.9G, and later to 5G. Now, “the problems are gone.”
Paul and Pizzato, whose companies help factory clients plan and execute their 5G transition strategies, agree that mobile robots, both in manufacturing and warehousing, will be among the first pieces of the manufacturing equation to go 5G.
“Then the cameras, which are put on the factory floor to take pictures and spot possible defects or safety problems, they can be converted to 5G relatively easily,” Paul said. “Smart work helmets [worn on factory floors] will start communicating with 5G. Newer machines on the plant floor will probably come with 5G [pre-installed]. The things last to be connected will be the legacy machines on the factory floor because that carries the risk of disruption. People have to be convinced that going to 5G is going to work.”
For those who can successfully embrace 5G, the payoffs could be enormous, Paul and Pizzato agree:
With factories and ancillary operations linked via 5G, less experienced workers who encounter breakdowns or other challenges also can use a tablet computer (with proper security protection) to access troubleshooting guidance in augmented reality or communicate with management or more experienced workers, who may not be physically present, via 5G. The folks with a few grey hairs will be able to see in the virtual twin what has gone wrong and diagnose the problem, then guide the on-site worker through the repair process.
As factories implement updates and upgrades, the virtual twins that have enabled each modernization step will update as well, giving management a permanent window into its systems, past and present – plus the power to simulate different operating scenarios for the future.
“With 5G, you can connect all the assets in your manufacturing process,” Pizzato said. “Basically, what you have in the physical world, you will be see in the virtual world.”
Learn more about 5G, IIoT and virtual twins
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