The Virtual Learning Factory Toolkit (VLFT) project is a pioneering program commissioned by the European Union using virtual and augmented reality to enhance engineering education programs across Europe. Five EU partners make up the VLFT Consortium, including Estonia’s Tallinn University of Technology, Hungary’s Institute for Computer Science and Control, Italy’s Politecnico di Milano, National Research Council of Italy, and Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology. Using Khronos® standards, the VLFT consortium has created a suite of tools to gamify learning, strengthen information and communication technology (ICT) skills, and better prepare students for jobs in 21st century manufacturing.
Why the VLF Toolkit was created
The VLFT project is financed by the European Commission’s Erasmus+ program. This program aims to help generations of Europeans become active citizens, with the skills, knowledge and experience to tackle the challenges facing society now and in the years to come. This project focuses on the development and integration of Virtual Learning Factory (VLF) tools that can be used in production management and engineering education all over Europe.
Higher education has to keep pace with modern ICT, and engineering education in particular must offer students an understanding of the complexity of 21st century industry. Global market companies have to deal with the constant evolution of products, processes, and production systems, all in parallel. All these facets of industrial production can be more easily monitored, developed, and upgraded using digital applications based on the “digital twin” paradigm. The VLFT project helps industrial engineering students learn to take advantage of various enabling technologies like data modeling, discrete event simulation, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR).
The VLFT project does not create any new curricula. Instead, it improves existing manufacturing curricula by strengthening digital skills. By developing, testing, and using the new VLF toolkit, trainers, teachers, professors, and students improve their ICT skills and better understand real-world processes and production management, including developing virtual factories.
The VLFT Gamification Environment
The VLFT includes a multi-user VR-based gamification environment. This virtual factory provides students with a realistic representation of a manufacturing system aimed to allow them to:
- Analyze the processes associated with manufacturing various products
- Assess the capabilities and processing times of machines
- Monitor failures and analyze related statistics
- Identify system bottlenecks
In addition to inspection activities, first person experiences can be set up thanks to VR. For example, VR can be used to simulate manual manufacturing activities for training purposes or to carry out ergonomic analyses.
VLFT Gamification VR Environment in Single Player Mode
Compared to traditional learning methods, digital tools have the potential to enable more interactive experiences. The VLFT Gamification Environment can realistically simulate a walkaround inside a manufacturing plant in complete safety. That eliminates the need for a physical space, an especially relevant advantage during the COVID-19 pandemic. More users can participate in the same virtual environment from different locations, and even interact with the digital items in ways that would not be possible with their physical counterparts.
Crucially, the VLFT Gamification Environment enables students from across the EU to work and learn together. Transnational migration is an established trend in the current EU labor market. Gathering in a rich VR environment, students gain an opportunity to cooperate with the foreign colleagues, clients, and suppliers who will play an important part of their future work routine. Joint lab sessions have been organized with students from the different partner universities collaborating as mixed, multinational groups towards common objectives, allowing the exchange of competencies between team members with different educational backgrounds.
Enabling Collaboration with Open Standards
The Institute for Computer Science and Control, Politecnico di Milano and the National Research Council of Italy collaborated to implement this new, innovative gamification VR app. Software engineers, manufacturing engineers, professors, teachers and 3D artists needed to work together efficiently to deliver the final product on time. Since the 3D artists and manufacturing engineers already use 3D modelling tools, the whole development chain contained external software vendors as well. Moreover, software engineers also used external rendering software libraries from other vendors. These interdisciplinary circumstances implied the need for a common language between the diverse groups of the development team.
Prior to adopting glTF™, the development phase for this project had to be extended with several time-consuming tasks, including defining a custom scene description, building a custom exporter from 3D modelers, and creating custom importers to rendering engines for geometries, materials and shaders. Ultimately, it became clear that the VLFT needed to use open-source frameworks and royalty-free interoperability standards during the implementation of the VLFT Gamification VR Environment.
The Khronos glTF file format for 3D scenes and models helped unite the different groups and disciplines within the VLFT VR Gamification Environment development team. glTF is the only royalty-free scene descriptor with photorealistic options that is supported by all VLFT Gamification Environment internal and external stakeholders. Internal stakeholders, including software engineers, manufacturing engineers, professors, teachers, and 3D artists, all use the glTF standard as a common 3D asset format. External stakeholders such as 3D modelling tools and rendering engines offer exporters and importers supporting glTF for rapid VR content generation. The glTF standard enables the interoperable use of 3D content across these different stakeholders by the efficient transmission and loading of 3D scenes and models by engines and applications.
In addition, the Khronos OpenXR™ API standard for VR and AR platforms and devices proved to be the only option to create a portable and maintainable source code that can run on Head Mounted Devices (HMDs) from multiple hardware vendors. Through using OpenXR, students can utilize their choice of HMD across multiple operating systems, and any OpenXR application need be implemented only once, as it is portable to any HMD or OS where the vendor provides an OpenXR runtime.
The VLFT uses the OpenXR plugin of the ApertusVR open-source virtual reality software library to implement the VR environment gameplay irrespective of which HMD a student is using. With the help of OpenXR, the XR development phase of the VLFT VR Gamification Environment was significantly streamlined.
What’s Next for the VLFT
The VLFT Gamification multi-user VR environment is only one of the VLF tools. This multi-user VR-based gamification environment is a minimum viable product on the technology readiness level 6. The whole VLFT has room for improvements as new methods and technologies are made available and implemented.
The VLFT Consortium established fundamental requirements from the very beginning to ensure that the VLFT can be adopted as a whole or subset by other educational institutions and companies. Through leveraging Khronos open standards and developing open-source applications to reduce implementation costs and increase interoperability, the consortium is enabling widespread adoption by a large user base, which will in turn help to enrich and develop the toolkit itself.
Interested organizations are encouraged to access the VLFT Consortium’s comprehensive and freely available documentation, created to allow anybody to apply the same workflow to different use cases.