The BMW Group first began to experiment with real-time workflows using Unreal Engine in 2014. Within three years, the company was using real-time technology in every car project at the company. Today, it has embraced real-time technology to an extent that few other major automotive makers have, leveraging Unreal Engine across departments from design to production planning to sales.
Real-time technology across BMW
Designers and engineers at the BMW Group can now assess vehicle designs together in minute detail in a virtual environment. This collaboration can take place from sites around the world, with the participants interacting and working together like they would in a multiplayer game.
The company also has a mixed reality lab that pairs VR, Unreal Engine, and physical hardware to deliver a unique experience that enables designers to experiment and make key decisions earlier in the process, leaving more time for iteration and refinement before locking in designs.
Real-time technology has similarly transformed manufacturing at the company. Production processes can be tested out in a virtual assembly hall before being set up in the real world, to ensure they are safe and efficient.
This innovation has already had a significant impact: in just six weeks, the production planning department was able to reconfigure BMW’s Munich plant in a simulated environment in Unreal Engine—despite the COVID-19 lockdown—and prepare in good time for production of the new BMW i4.
For BMW’s customers, real-time technology completely changes the car purchasing experience. Now, they can personally configure photorealistic vehicles and assess them from any angle in a range of different virtual environments.
Customers can experience their vehicle virtually, exploring different options and swapping the trims and dashboard finishes with the click of a button. They can even sit in the driver’s seat of the virtual vehicle to try it out before they buy.
VR and AR possibilities transforms automotive workflows
The VR and AR capability that real-time technology provides is effecting sweeping change across the BMW Group. In the dealership, it's about the customer seeing their future car. In the design engineering phase, it's about seeing the car that will be on the street three or five years later.
When it comes to production planning, VR is a powerful tool for harvesting the knowledge of the employees who work on the factory floor day in day out. Show them what their future workspace will look like and they spot problems that might otherwise be missed. For example, they might point out that placing a box in a slightly different spot will make screws easier to reach, shaving seconds off their work process each time.
The BMW Group also uses AR for assembly training. In the past, trainee car assembly workers would have required a person to stand next to them and take them through the assembly process. Now, workers can wear a mixed reality headset and have each step of the manual displayed to them as they go through the process.
Adopting real-time technology has had a significant impact. In the engineering phase, for example, teams no longer have to rely on costly physical mockups. They can show new changes weekly to decision makers. Because it's virtual, it takes a few minutes, instead of building a hardware mock-up, which can be much more complex and expensive.
Similarly, salespeople on the dealership floor now have more tools at their fingertips when it comes to selling a car. Using the BMW Group’s Emotional Virtual Experience (EVE) VR system, vehicles can be configured, animated, swapped into different virtual environments—and then emailed to the potential buyer so they can show their friends and family.
Cars are no longer purely mechanical entities: they are increasingly a hybrid of software and hardware. If you open a door, a projection might show on the floor. If you enter the car, the lights might change color. There’s far more interaction between the car, its environment, and the driver. In the future, computers will play an even great role. And it won’t be possible to design and test these elements purely in a hardware mock-up—technologies like game engines will be required.
Viewed through this prism, the BMW Group's wholesale adoption of real-time technology is clearly a strategic initiative. It places them in an enviable position to conceive, design, and manufacture the vehicles we’ll be driving tomorrow.
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