The following article appears in the journal JOM,
47 (12) (1995), pp. 12-13.

JOM is a publication of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society

Film Icon Now with QuickTime clips. Film Icon

Figure 1

Step Inside the Cyberworld of a Virtual Reality Steel Mill

Tammy M. Beazley

Figure 1. An undentified viewer takes a stroll through a hot strip mill via a virtual reality display. The mouse in his hand controls his movement within the mill. Images can also be seen by onlookers on the computer in the right of the photograph.

Attendees at the recent Iron and Steel Exposition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had the opportunity to visit an operating hot strip mill without leaving the Lawrence Convention Center simply by putting on a helmet. Like the winged sandals of Hermes, the helmet transported its wearer to another place—into a virtual world.

Viewers were able to don the helmet and interact in a virtual reality presentation of a three-dimensional (3-D) animated steel mill (Figure 1). The display was operated by Tippins Incorporated and featured the Tippins-Samsung Process (TSP[TM]) for thin-slab casting.

QuickTime Clips from the Simulation
Plant Overview (~1,800K)Traveling Slab (~1,500K)Strip Rolling (~2,000K)
Mill OverviewSlabRolling
Exclusively prepared for JOM, these clips were extracted from a TSP promotional VHS videotape produced by Tippins. Click on an image to download the QuickTime file (8 frames per second, 24 bit color, Cinpak codic compression at 100% quality, 11 kHz audio). The clips were prepared by Joe Hager.

In the virtual world, a viewer observes the entire TSP process on a screen in the helmet, beginning at the electric arc furnace melt shop (Figure 2). The viewer watches as the steel is taken from the melt shop via a ladle and placed in the tundish of the continous caster (Figure 3). [The continuous caster viewed from above is reproduced on the this issue's covered.] The slab emerges from the caster (Figure 4) and is cut before proceeding to a slab heating/equalizing furnace placed between the casting line and the rolling mill line (Figure 5). After approximately 30 minutes in the furnace, the slab moves along the line into the reversing rolling mill (Figure 6), where it is reversed back and forth for a total of three flat roughing passes and six coiling finishing passes. After rolling, the strip is cooled in a series of laminar cooling banks as it reaches the coiler, the final step in the conversion process (Figure 7).

Figure 2 Figure 2. A 3-D image of an electric arc furnace melt shop.

There is no starting or ending point in the display; the viewer controls his or her own movement within the model. Viewers move forward in the display by using the computer's mouse; to see to the left or right, up or down, the individual simply moves his or her head. Sounds become increasingly louder as the viewer walks toward objects, and the images come more into focus as the viewer gets closer to them. While the viewer experiences the mill through the helmet, onlookers can see what the viewer sees by watching the images on an accompanying computer.

Figure 3 Figure 3. The animated computer image of the electric arc furnace melt shop and the continuous caster.

Originally a 3-D animated video, the virtual reality display was made for Tippins by Jerry O'Connor of Summit Graphics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Unlike virtual reality games, which attempt to immerse the viewer inside the program, the Tippins display was more of a tool to enhance understanding of a process, said O'Connor.

"We created the video intially to introduce the TSP process to customers. This was just another step," said Maggie Cessar, marketing manager for Tippins.

Figure 4 Figure 4. Steel slabs emerge from the caster to be cut in virtual reality modeling.

O'Connor worked with engineers and draftsmen at Tippins to develop the computer-drawn, 3-D mill for video in 1994. To create the mill, O'Connor started with drawings (e.g., floor plans, photographs, etc.) submitted by Tippins. By using a computer-aided design program, the 3-D buildings were developed with accurate heights and thicknesses. Next, color, textures, and shadow lighting were incorporated using 3-D Studios, an animation application. Sounds were incorporated from videotapes made at several different mills.

Figure 5 Figure 5. After cutting, the slab travels into the slab equalizing furnace in the model.

The animation came next. In order to create a working mill, O'Connor calculated a path of activity that was then converted into an animated model by the 3-D Studio application. It takes approximately ten minutes for the computer to create a single frame; when completed, the video shows 30 frames per second.

The virtual reality display was made from the 3-D video. Unlike the video, pictures in virtual reality are created in real time as the viewer interacts with the application. In order to make the display work effectively, O'Connor simplified the model so that the display shows ten pictures every second. Work began in June, and the display was completed in August; final revisions and details were added in September just before the display's introduction at the convention. The total cost of the interactive display was approximately $25,000.

Figure 6 Figure 6. A 3-D image of a reversing rolling mill.

"We've had a tremendous response," said Cessar. "People are amused by it. It makes a little bit of excitement for the technology." In fact, the display was so popular that Tom Murphy, the mayor of Pittsburgh and the son of a steelworker, visited the booth.

Although virtual reality displays are frequently seen at computer trade shows, Tippins is the first to incorporate it into the steel manufacturing industry, said Cessar. The virtual reality display was done specifically for the convention, and its performance will be reviewed to determine if the display is used for future sales presentations. Because the display requires so much equipment to operate it, Tippins may use it only for trade shows such as the Iron and Steel Exposition; however, the 3-D video is still used in sales presentations.

Figure 7 Figure 7. The coiler is the final step in the virtual reality display.

As the role of computers in the production of steel expands, it seems only fitting that computers assist in the commercial aspects as well. The popularity of this display, evidenced by the fact that the headset was hardly ever idle at the show, is a good indicator of the industry's willingness to accept this new marketing tool. More opportunities will arise to display processes and technological products via virtual reality—the next best thing to being there.

Tammy M. Beazley is a staff writer for JOM.

Copyright held by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, 1995

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