In my first job after I received my engineering degree, I was designing hardware and writing software for embedded products for industrial applications. I had a simulator for the microcontroller. I would write the software while I waited for the target system to be constructed. I would write a portion of code, then walk it through using the simulator to exercise the code in the absence of the accoutrements that allow the microcontroller to accomplish the objectives of the product in real life. The simulator’s fidelity to the microcontroller was not perfect.

Eventually, we moved to using an in-circuit emulator (ICE). This tool made development easier. The fidelity of the ICE to the microcontroller was near ideal, and it provided tools that allowed exploration of the microcontroller while performing the action defined in the software (breakpoints, single stepping of instruction, explore registers and memory locations, etc.).

Similarly, manufacturing engineers can benefit from simulation when designing assembly lines. Simulation software for designing assembly lines has long been available. We can see how each proposed piece of equipment will perform in the context of the entire assembly line, allowing us to explore alternatives and adapt the equipment in advance of actual setup. In this way, we can critique the suitability of the proposed equipment, along with specific configurations for that equipment, before making any purchases. We can explore multiple equipment possibilities to find the optimum solution for our company based on short- and long-term goals.

However, technology has continued its relentless march. Virtual reality and augmented reality now make it possible to explore the work area in detail. For example, augmented reality can be used to display instructions for portions of the work that cannot be automated.

Some time ago, I watched an episode of the television show The Good Doctor, in which virtual reality was used to explore surgical alternatives for a heart patient. In this episode, doctors have a complicated situation to repair the heart of a patient. Two surgeons explore possible ways to solve the condition, testing assumptions and exploring strategies and techniques. Upon failing in one simulation, they rethink the approach, reset the system, and try a new approach, all with no risk to the patient.

Engineers can use these same tools to explore options for the manufacturing line. This exploration can start before the manufacturing line is completed or even started, rather than waiting for the line to be assembled. Like the surgeons in that series, your team can explore alternatives for doing the work. This can provide constructive feedback that will make it possible to adjust your approach or try an altogether new alternative.

We have come a long way from microcontroller simulators of very low fidelity. We can expect technology to continue to provide opportunities to improve how we set about the product development and manufacturing work. Even if it is not tomorrow that we are using virtual reality in our manufacturing, these systems will eventually provide opportunities to improve how long it takes to do the work as well as reducing the risk.