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  • By Peter Richmond
  • System Integration
Virtual reality
Making training more immersive and meaningful

By Peter Richmond

Immersive technology advancements extend far beyond commercial and consumer use cases, having the potential to transform complicated industrial content into vivid, realistic experiences. As part of this wave of immersive technology, virtual reality (VR) training has been used for many years with excellent results in all aspects of workforce training to train astronauts, pilots, and military personnel.

Advances in computer and graphical processing capabilities have made creating these virtual worlds more affordable and accessible to a broader range of process industries. Now, industries like oil and gas, refining, and power generation that need to preserve and institutionalize their workforce knowledge and effectively sustain operational excellence, have turned to VR models to assist with on-the-job training for a range of critical functions and tasks. Developments in this sector are only going to increase in the future, so it is important to explore why and how VR implementations will continue to take shape in these industries.

How is VR used?

One of the main objectives of simulation-based training is to reduce the time to competency and to transfer a high level of skill, plant knowledge, and situational awareness to each member of the team as efficiently as possible. Immersive training systems (ITS) using VR technology put employees at the heart of proceedings to acquire and practice essential plant operation and maintenance skills. By setting aside the manuals and information sheets, trainees also stand a better chance of retaining information.

Early adopters of VR training are applying ITS in a wide range of applications and across industries. The technology is incredibly scalable and can provide training value for anything from a single piece of equipment using interactive three-dimensional techniques to an entire virtual plant with a virtual control room and high-fidelity dynamic process simulation. Additionally, the same 3D model can be deployed in several ways depending on the overall training department requirements. For instance, a complete ITS system deployed with a control room human-machine interface and CAVE for the field operations can also be deployed as a classroom-style application. Elements of the same model can also be accessed on mobile devices from a private cloud server or public cloud service, depending on user preferences.

Realistic and tightly engineered virtual training environments allow trainees to become familiar with plants and their operation well before they even step foot in the plant. In a VR-based training or design environment, users interact with the virtual worlds using a variety of hardware devices, such as joysticks and data gloves. Special optical and audio devices, such as head-mounted displays, 3D graphics, and surround sound, give users an enhanced impression of being in the virtual world. Because simulation software and immersive technology have a game-like feel, which appeals to the millennial generation, it will connect younger workers with the information they need via a familiar medium.

Multiple learning pathways

VR has several strengths that make it a natural fit for training. It is immersive, interactive, memorable, scalable, and cost effective. The significant advantage of simulation-based training is that important training and knowledge can be delivered in a consistent, repeatable manner within the safety of the training facility. Plants are by nature dangerous environments that are in stable operation, making it difficult to train on real plant interactions, particularly when it comes to emergency preparedness. A range of courses that covers every aspect of standard operating procedures for both normal and abnormal plant conditions allows training and assessment of operators in the safe and controlled environment of the classroom, providing the freedom to fail without risk. When workers are better trained, there are fewer accidents, injury-related costs, and production delays-and a better safety record translates into less risk and lower insurance costs.

Finally, investment in immersive training systems applied early in the life cycle can help maximize the return on investment. For complex maintenance tasks, machines can perpetually be taken apart and rebuilt in a virtual environment without fear of wearing down real parts. And because trainees can train from any location that allows a computer connection-as opposed to jetting off to a life-size simulator-time and travel expenses can also be saved. For instance, upstream facilities, such as offshore platforms or float production storage and offloading, can enable training and precommissioning to engineers and operators before they are helicoptered to the real asset. The design of these assets is often dense and complex, including space and weight restrictions that challenge operators to locate and navigate to the correct equipment. Not only are workers protected by the use of VR, but sensitive and expensive equipment is protected as well, as operators learn to interact with it in virtual crisis conditions.

Virtual reality training immerses the student in a control situation.

Students experience realistic views of actual equipment.

The future is virtual

In the digital age, plants will only continue to get smarter, and training practices need to be just as smart. VR technology, now both affordable and functional in its ability to create complex challenges that require adaptive thinking and application, is the perfect training tool for this new digital age.

According to the Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide from International Data Corporation, worldwide revenues for the augmented reality (AR) and VR market are forecast to increase by 100 percent or more over each of the next four years. Total spending on AR/VR products and services is expected to soar from $11.4 billion in 2017 to nearly $215 billion in 2021.

The projected increase in spending forecasts companies' willingness to provide employees with these virtual modalities for learning new skills.

Virtual reality is going to be ubiquitous in industrial training, and the result will be more efficient, engaging, and safer training. However, wide adoption of immersive technology requires collaboration among industrial companies, and VR technology providers must make sure the technology meets the training and safety needs of each industry.

Trainees virtually experience and deal with emergency situations in a safe environment.

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About The Authors

Peter Richmond is a product manager with 20 years of experience in the chemical and oil and gas industries. He holds a master’s degree in chemical engineering with French from the University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology. After five years as a process engineer in separation and mass transfer, he joined the simulation sciences business of Invensys (now part of Schneider Electric). His focus is bringing the latest in immersive training technologies to the market to help customers achieve operational excellence and improved asset safety.