March 25, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 92  

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VR in Western’s Research Park

By Chris Sinal
Gazette Staff

Hidden behind the storied halls of Saugeen-Maitland Hall, across the formidable currents of the Thames River and past the treacherous vehicular dangers of Windermere Rd. sits an area of the university shrouded in mystery and intrigue — the Western Research Park.

Could it be that in this area of Western, secret experiments attempt to create zombies, killer-robots, earthquake machines and other hallmarks of cartoonish super-villainy? Not really.
Nonetheless, The Gazette decided to investigate some of the interesting things that exist within the Park.

In today’s research environment, increasing strings attached to provincial and federal government research grants demand that universities commercialize their research to an extent.

“The Research Park is intended as a transition environment for companies that are starting out and depend on research activities within the university,” says Nils Petersen, Western’s VP-research. “It is intended to be for tenants that have some kind of a give and take with the university. It has to be a two-way street.”

The list of Research Park tenants runs the gamut of evil sounding names, including Science and Tech Integration, Inc., Dell Tech Laboratories and the London Biotechnology Commercialization Centre. Clearly, if a super-laser capable of destroying the moon were built anywhere in the Park, it would be in the building with the most unintelligible name — the National Research Council Integrated Manufacturing Technologies Institute.

“The idea [of the IMTI] is to increase the competitiveness of the manufacturing industry in Canada,” says Georges Salloum, director general of the IMTI. “Our work is primarily used by the aerospace, medical, electronics and equipment machinery industries.”

While the IMTI is involved in a number of interesting projects, two that deserve special attention in the quest to highlight interesting ventures on campus — particularly those that involve lasers and zombies — are laser consolidation and the Virtual Environment Technologies Centre.

Lasers intended to create things, rather than destroy the moon

Gazette File Photo
“IT’S CALLED A ‘LASER’.” Though Dr. Evil uses his ‘laser’ in hopes of taking over the world, Western researchers are do-gooders whose lasers are not attached to sharks.

“We use a laser to consolidate powder at the micron size (one-millionth of a metre) and make three-dimensional shapes with this powder,” Salloum says.

The technology is used to build complicated shapes that cannot be made through traditional methods such as casting or molding, he says, noting lasers are used to create sonar shells for submarines and to build and repair turbine blades and impellers. “This work is [unmatched] by any other group in the world,” Salloum adds.

Using the alliterative “free-form fabrication” technology, shapes are created with computer-aided drafting technology, then transmitted for fabrication. Construction time varies depending on the complexity of the shape, ranging from one hour to days.

Apart from creating shapes that would be impossible to create using traditional methods, laser consolidation allows the IMTI to fabricate objects out of unusual materials, including complex polymers and copper, nickel and cobalt alloys.
“These techniques have applications everywhere,” Salloum says. “We work with several companies here in Canada, in the United States, in Europe and in Japan. We have collaboration from around the world.”

Can virtual reality be used to train zombies? No, it cannot.
If you’ve seen the movie Lawnmower Man, then you have a pretty good idea about the implications of anything with a name like the Virtual Environment Technologies Centre.

At the IMTI, the Centre allows extremely complicated objects — from a sports arena to a light armoured vehicle — to be created and manipulated within a computer-generated virtual environment.

“For the first time in the world, we were able to realize the performance and assembly without making a hard piece,” Salloum says of the VET Centre’s work with General Dynamics on the creation of the American Stryker LAV, a military transportation construction. According to Salloum, the awarding of the $6-billion contract for 2,800 vehicles to London’s own GD is attributable to the unique capabilities of the Centre.

“We were able to stack people in it; to stack munitions, to try all kinds of functional performance evaluations. We modified the design in the virtual world several times with the company personnel and the client [in this case the U.S. military].”

The technology was also used to construct and test the design for the John Labatt Centre, allowing interested parties to examine the facilities and suggest changes before a single brick was laid.

Ed note: Stay tuned for Campus Life’s issue on Apr. 8, when we assess the value of this type of research on a university campus.



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