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The e-tron is Audi's first model to be developed without any physical prototypes, instead it was developed with virtual reality and 3D scanning tools.

21 Dec 2020 | International News : Germany

The Audi e-tron GT is the model for which production was planned entirely without physical prototypes. Multiple technical innovations made this possible, including three-dimensional building scans, machine learning processes and the use of virtual reality.

All assembly processes, such as procedures and employee actions were tested and optimised in virtual spaces that model their real-world counterparts down to the finest detail. Virtual planning is now used across site boundaries, enabling digital, connected working without business trips or foreign assignments - and not just during the coronavirus pandemic.

The virtual planning of the Audi e-tron GT without physical prototypes saved not just time, but also materials and thus resources
A variety of prototypes are used in the conventional planning process for the production of a new Audi model. The vehicle prototypes are fabricated during the early planning phase as one-off models with hand-built parts. This is time consuming and cost intensive. Assembly Planning uses these prototypes to define and optimise the later production processes.

What are the employee's tasks? Where does a part have to be located for the employee to have optimal access to it? Can the employee hold and install the part by him- or herself? How does she have to move to do it? Are other parts in the way? What tools does he need?

During production planning for the Audi e-tron GT, these questions were derived and answered entirely in the virtual world. Every step and every action was tested in the digital space using virtual reality. The goal of virtual planning is to ensure that during the later production of the vehicle, all processes are perfectly meshed and the cycles along the line are seamlessly coordinated.

This requires that every detail of the production hall be modelled precisely and to scale. This is where 3D scans come into play. Using special hardware and software, they create a virtual reproduction of the physical production facility, including all equipment, tools and shelves.

With virtual reality, processes that once required a physical meeting are now possible in a virtual space
A scanner is essential for generating the corresponding data. It is roughly two metres tall and is mounted on four wheels so that an employee can move it around the spaces. At the top is a Light Detection and Ranging unit and three additional laser scanners as well as a camera.

Two processes are conducted simultaneously while scanning a space. The wide-angle camera takes a picture of the space while the lasers precisely measure it and generate a three-dimensional point cloud of the surroundings. 250,000m2 of production hall space at the Neckarsulm site alone has already been scanned using this technology.

But it is the interaction between the hardware and software that takes the points, images and data sets generated and turns them into a usable overall image that can be used with the existing planning systems. The software used here is an in-house Audi development based on artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The point cloud and the photographs are combined to produce a three-dimensional, photo-realistic space similar to what is seen in Google Street View. Proportions and sizes are true to scale and correspond to reality. The software also automatically recognises all objects, such as machines, shelves and systems in the space.

The 2m tall scanner that Audi employees can wheel around to easily scan the models and parts they need to prototype
All assembly procedures are jointly defined and tested in real time, as are ergonomic aspects or the exact arrangement of machines, shelves and parts along the assembly line. Audi is the Group lead for the development of the comprehensive Virtual Reality (VR) solution including the digital model. The project is being continued across brand lines under the leadership of Audi as a Group project and rolled out to more and more sites.

Virtual planning is not restricted to just processes and work procedures. Objects such as containers for the transport and storage of sensitive parts, called special load containers, can also be planned using this technology.

These containers for individual, particularly sensitive parts of the Audi e-tron GT, such as electric modules or interior parts - were planned using Audi's cross-site and cross-division virtually reality application rather than using multiple physical prototypes of iron and steel.

Virtual container planning works like this. Since there are data sets for all parts, these can be loaded directly and to-scale in the VR application. As in the 3P workshops, multiple employees from different sites meet in a virtual space, where they use the part to check the perfect and tailored load carrier.

Employees from Logistics, Assembly Planning, Occupational Safety, Quality Assurance, Material Flow Planning and also suppliers are involved in this process. They use digital pens to mark their changes on the virtual containers. The containers are loaded and unloaded, moved and measured during this process.

Optimal safety of the part during transport is one objective of this planning. But employees or a robot must also be able to easily grab the part and remove it from the load carrier. Once the virtual design is complete, the data are simply exported and the special load carrier manufactured.

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