The German engineering giant's video-game-based modeling tool will allow companies to design factory equipment in a fraction of the time
Rich McDaniel, a research scientist at Siemens Corporate Research's Automation & Control Div., is in the middle of a presentation. The images projected onto the screen look like a cartoon version of a bottle factory: Curvy, lime-green containers waltz dizzily around geometric rotating purple and green cylinders. The cute, rudimentary imagery almost seems to have been culled from a 1980s arcade game, with bare-bones geometrical renditions of familiar objects—think Centipede or Frogger.
But McDaniel is far from a retro mall arcade. His presentation to a journalist in a darkened conference room at the Siemens Corporate Research office in Princeton, N.J., demonstrates a project code-named GEM. It's an acronym for "game engine modeling"—as in the engines, or software, that fuel the physics and graphics of video games.
But McDaniel makes it clear that GEM is a design tool. "It's not a serious game," he says, referring to the training simulations with the look and feel of a console game used by the military and medical (and increasingly other kinds of) schools.
A New Proposition
GEM, which is currently in product-development phase, uses the Meqon physics engine licensed from physics-accelerator-card maker AGEIA. The engine, also used in the development of the forthcoming first-person shooter TimeShift, gives the factory simulation a game-like look, feel, and function, even though McDaniel hopes no one will label it as such.
Siemens (SI) is hoping the GEM project will appeal to small to midsize original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that make the components for consumer electronics and other products. Because this is a business of relatively inexpensive goods and low margins, OEMs don't tend to invest in simulation technology, which tends to be used by deep-pocketed automotive and aerospace giants who produce complex products that must pass rigorous safety tests. So factory sims are a new proposition for these OEMs—and for Siemens as well. The company's Automation & Control Div., for which McDaniel designed GEM, typically develops and sells equipment for factory motors and machine controllers, usually in the form of hardware.
McDaniel says one goal in the development of GEM was to create a factory sim by writing as little original computer code as possible, saving Siemens both time and money in terms of programmers' billable hours. A lifelong gamer, he adapted existing "middleware," as game-engine software is known, to render realistic factory actions, such as bottles whirling in a plant or crates rolling down conveyor belts. Another goal of the GEM project is to cater to twenty- and thirtysomething machine designers' and operators' familiarity with video games by offering them easy-to-use software that can produce customized simulations.
Speeding Up Development Time
But the business advantage of GEM is its potential as a tool to enable factory-machine designers to build virtual equipment, bypassing expensive and cumbersome physical prototypes. The tool would also allow factory workers to train safely and quickly on the 3D digital machines. Both scenarios offer Siemens clients the means to slash both designers' and factory supervisors' billable hours. In addition, they can cut the cost of constructing full-size prototype robots for use on the factory floor to test the layout and efficiency of machines, conveyor belts, and other systems.
The sim won't fully replace physical models, but will decrease the number of models required and speed up a company's machine-development time, not to mention shortening the time-to-market phase of the products made in the factories. Designing a new OEM factory machine generally takes several months—first configuring the mechanical design, then the electrical design, the building of a physical prototype, and final tests and refinements. Siemens customers who saw the GEM prototype indicate this time period could be cut in half by the sim, according to Dan Benson, the research and incubation manager at Siemens' Energy & Automation Div. who initially commissioned the project. "One OEM told us commissioning a new machine can take them two to three weeks, but foresaw possibly reducing this down to two days because of GEM," Benson says.
GEM achieves this time-savings with the help of an easy-to-use editing tool that allows designers to select from a library of shapes, physics attributes, and other elements from a simple drop-down Windows menu. They can also type in specifics to match real-world measurements and actions. The waltzing bottles in McDaniel's demo, for instance, can weigh and look the same as those in a real-life bottling plant. Workers training with GEM software navigate just as they would a PC game, using commands and keys that correspond with on-screen movement (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/27/06, "On the Job Video Gaming").
Incubating "Radical" Technologies
GEM is designed to be utterly intuitive—like a game. McDaniel, who earned a PhD in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, says with GEM he set out to design software that was both easy to customize and simple to use—so simple that "a manual wouldn't be necessary."
"How many people read the game manual?" he asks. "You just pop in a disc and go. So GEM has a sandbox feel. You just enter [the sim] and try it, and no one or nothing gets badly hurt." Translating games' ease of use could, McDaniel says, help companies increase their speed-to-market in terms of developing and manufacturing new products, a competitive advantage.
Benson recruited McDaniel in 1999 after reading a paper he'd written while at CMU on designing a new video game simply by modifying Pac-Man code. At the time, Benson was working in Berkely, Calif., at Siemens' Technology-to-Business Center, which incubates projects using what the company labels "radical" new technologies.
Repurposing Game Engines
"One topic we were working on was easier ways to program simulations for industrial automation," Benson says. "And we saw, from Rich's research, that games aren't too different from what we were looking for."
Benson says that in the nearly eight years he has observed McDaniel develop his original idea of modifying Pac-Man into what is GEM today, he has been struck by the potential that game design might have on industrial tools and training.
"I think about my 9-year-old daughter playing The Sims. She's a whiz and she goes right in; it's that intuitive," Benson says. "We're looking to achieve an experience like that, for a seemingly complex tool of building a machine and using that machine."
Shaking Up a Stodgy Image
Siemens isn't the first nonentertainment company to repurpose game engines, although it's one of the first big-name corporations to do the work internally rather than hire a gaming studio. Cary (N.C.)-based Virtual Heroes, for instance, uses the Unreal Engine 3—the software behind popular games such as Gears of War—for detailed simulations such as HumanSim, a serious game for health-care professionals. Virtual Heroes first gained attention in 2002 when it created America's Army, a realistic battle-themed game that's used as a recruiting tool by the U.S. military. For America's Army and HumanSim, Virtual Heroes licensed Unreal Engine 3 and customized graphics and other elements, rather than hiring programmers to write original code, similar to Siemens' GEM project.
But what sets GEM apart is its potential to establish an entirely new market for a commercial electronics giant. An added benefit for Siemens: efforts such as GEM that use gaming technologies in imaginative ways could help the company remake its longstanding image as a stodgy, slow-moving corporation (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/18/07, "Siemens' Culture Clash"). And after a recent bribery scandal involving the company's European communications equipment division (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/25/07, "Whiplash for Siemens Investors"), the company also needs to bounce back in the public eye.
In his two years since assuming Siemens' top spot, Chief Executive Officer Klaus Kleinfeld (formerly the chief exec of Siemens' U.S. operations) has shown he's keen on the company developing new products and research that address today's broad cultural trends, from climate change to globalization. Under his helm, marked by aggressive restructuring, improving customer service, developing new markets, and a focus on supplying infrastructure clients such as airports, the company saw 2006 sales increase by 16% from the year before (to $114 billion) as annual profits rose 35%. That McDaniel has been charged with developing a video-game-inspired product to cut costs and create new markets is a sign that Siemens Corporate Research, at least, is heeding Kleinfeld's call.