May/June 2011

Automation IT

Virtual reality improves training in process industries

VR surrounds employee with situations and feedback, supporting best practices for safety, maintenance, reliability

Fast Forward

  • Virtual reality techniques address changing workplace demographics.
  • Advanced technology enables real-life scenarios for precise training without harm to employees or process.
  • Significant financial incentives found in on-the-job training, startup efficiency, and maintenance.
By Maurizio Rovaglio and Tobias Scheele
Augmented reality example of a data trend popup in the virtual field

Capital-intensive industries face the challenge of replacing an aging workforce with a computer-savvy, gaming generation of employees over the next five years. Industries such as oil and gas, refining, and power generation must preserve and institutionalize their workforce knowledge efficiently and effectively to sustain operational excellence. Virtual reality (VR) models can improve time-to-competency in a range of critical functions and tasks, providing a vehicle to rapidly train this new workforce in ways that align with their interests and skills.

In a VR-based training or design environment, users can interact with the virtual worlds with 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, allow users an enhanced impression of being in the virtual world.

How is VR used?

Utilizing the increased power of computers, VR simulates real or imaginary environments and situations with a high degree of realism and interactivity. VR is particularly good for improving the multimedia aspects of training, process design, maintenance, and safety, which are currently based around conventional 2D equipment views.

Real-time rendering of equipment views places demands on processor time, as high-fidelity simulators have become the standard in process understanding and training. For many past VR commercial projects, the results were unrealistically slow or over-simplified to the detriment of the solution effectiveness. Today's technology, however, is addressing these performance issues in a new era of process simulation.

VR technology is primarily used for training applications in a variety of process industries. It offers the potential to expose personnel to simulated hazardous situations in a safe, highly visual, and interactive way. Customized simulations of chemical plant layouts, dynamic process operations, and comprehensive virtual environments can be set up to allow users to move within the virtual plants, make operational decisions, and investigate processes at a glance. Trainees see the consequences of correct and incorrect decisions immediately, giving them the opportunity to directly learn from their successes and mistakes.

Virtual reality has also been applied to a wide range of problems associated with manufacturing, industrial maintenance, post-production training, and customer services in areas such as visualization of complex data; robot control and remote operation of equipment; communication, training, and planning; and virtual prototyping and design. The success of those applications has relied heavily on a realistic virtual environment.

VR-based simulation addresses critical applications and functional areas, which translates into significant savings in operational time and money.

How VR-based interactive simulation is delivered

A VR-based interactive system is a server-centric distributed application that centralizes scene update and enables scene rendering on many concurrent stations. For example, in the Invensys EYESIM system, the central component-the server-synchronizes directly with a process simulation engine, which updates the properties of each plant element in the VR scene. The VR system has additional stations for the role of Control Room Operator and other roles in the simulation. All these elements communicate via a standard TCP/IP network.

The server application handles communication among the various modules and keeps an updated version of all scene parameters. It maintains a copy of the scene graph (a hierarchical representation of the 3D scene) synchronous with the one in each satellite application. It constantly updates the scene graph data and notifies the changes through network protocol to the satellite applications.

The satellite applications render the visualized data and provide users with additional functionality. The main client station (VR engine) plays the role of Field Operator by reproducing the plant environment and allowing a trainee to perform actions on plant elements (e.g., opening a valve). Various platform elements, including the process simulator, track and synchronize all actions the virtual field operator performs. The trainee output can be displayed on different systems, ranging from standard desktop monitors, to head-mounted displays, to immersive projection systems; it can use mono- and stereoscopic vision.

The system interfaces with a powerful process simulator, such as Invensys' DYNSIM high-fidelity process simulator, and a control system emulation module. Advanced systems can interface with simulations and emulations from different suppliers. There is fully-synchronized integration between the 3D world and the process/control simulation. The process simulation reflects any field operator action in the 3D environment immediately, and conversely updates the VR platform accordingly.

A monitoring station centralizes all the information regarding the running simulation, from the number and type of connected stations, to the specific exercises that played on the 3D model. This is integrated with a station, which would play the role of instructor on traditional operator training systems. This allows a single managing point to run the full training session, including a tracking capability.


Events and training exercises can be triggered from the graphics-based instructor station, transmitted to the control consoles (control room operators) and the VR platform (field operators). The instructor station activates control and monitoring functions using menus and a mouse. These functions include the following:

  1. Run/Freeze
  2. Snapshot
  3. Scenario
  4. Malfunction & Accident Initiation
  5. Instructor controlled variables
  6. Monitored parameters
  7. Trending
  8. Trainee Proficiency Review
  9. Operators tracking in the virtual plant
  10. Playback


Augmented reality

In addition to simulating reality, 3D virtual reality technology enables designers and trainers to augment reality by presenting context-specific images, instructions, and reference materials into the field of vision. This further engages the user in an immersive, interactive, and 3D "augmented" environment.

The true value of VR tools and related benefits for training purposes is directly related to the "action/reaction" feeling of the trainees, as well as the availability of additional information and data, which provide a "supernatural" sense of power and understanding of the process in object. Augmented reality accomplishes this.

Augmented reality enables the interconnection of the display technology, the simulation environment, and the information processing systems to achieve accurate alignment of the real/virtual environments and multimedia data sources.

A trend diagram in augmented reality can be activated or deactivated by a trainee with a simple touch on the hand device at any time during the plant walkthrough or a task procedure. Variables and trends can be selected and customized by type and equipment, exactly as displayed in the control rooms. The data will be identical, whether it is from the simulation engine or real-time database.

Safety, risk, emergency management

Human error is a major cause of accidents. To understand the contribution of human behavior to the risk of accidents, it is essential to examine the errors people make and what leads to such errors. Through life-like training and practice, the reduction of human error probability can lead to a reduction in accident probability in process industries.

In the past, the objective of operator training was to prevent direct damage and loss of life and property from accidents. Now, it includes the wider meaning of developing human resources and increasing the productivity, safety, and efficiency of industries. So, operator education is more important than ever before.

Mistakes can result from incorrect decisions, poor communications, and lack of practice in situations. Typical mistakes include failure to appreciate the dangers of equipment and materials being used, misunderstanding operational procedures and emergency situations, or the failure to realize the implications on a process plant. Individual and team training based on virtual scenarios is the most effective way to reduce these mistakes and prevent harm to trainees and the environment.

Interactive VR allows users to navigate in any direction within a computer-generated environment, creating crisis conditions, deciding what actions to take, and to immediately see the impact of those actions. The system also allows trainees to walk throughout a plant, observe all the equipment in the process, and learn how to start, run, and shut down equipment in normal conditions. Interactive VR assists in providing an introduction to basic hazards and plant safety procedures, incorporating fire alarm systems, and detailed work safety processes.

Essentially, every abnormal situation imaginable can now be tested, helping the operator understand atypical plant behaviors. Expected and predictable malfunctions can be tested and forced until the accidental sequence results in a simulated disaster, which helps avoid a real disaster. An augmented reality image of a barrier can define a safe distance from an incident in the plant. Such safety practices can now be tested and experimented for training and help risk assessors better identify hazardous scenarios in a more effective and realistic manner.

Improvement in safety performance has often meant reducing the number of accidents and the potential risk. The process of risk assessment attempts to minimize or eradicate the probability of an accident. Risk assessment has been used informally throughout history, whenever risk is associated with a decision yet to be made or an action yet to be taken. Because the outcome of a future decision is uncertain, different actions may require different outcomes, with some outcomes being more effective. Hence, human factors become critical in risk assessment.

Improving maintenance, reliability

Best practice in plant maintenance requires a team-based approach, where operators perform various equipment maintenance activities and maintenance crews work closely in the daily operation of equipment. To understand requirements for maintenance training, the first step is to review each task the trainee is expected to perform and the desired outcome of that training. For example, in process operations, the nature of the maintenance task depends heavily on the industry sector, range of equipment maintained, and specific company culture. Within those parameters, maintenance tasks typically include the following subtasks:

  • Replication-reproducing the reported fault
  • Identification-accurately diagnosing the source of the fault
  • Rectification-correcting the fault by taking the appropriate action based on the policies of the maintenance establishment
  • Confirmation-verifying the identified fault has been cleared

Each requires a combination of generic and specific physical and mental skills, which can be designed into a VR-based training simulation implementation.

Maintenance operators can be trained to have a full understanding of the maintenance task and the science behind their equipment, using a training structure that is based on these broad categories:

  1. Initial theoretical training
  2. Instructor-led training
  3. Systems appreciation
  4. Fault diagnostics training          
  5. Rectification training
  6. Equipment familiarization
  7. Scenarios simulation
  8. Visual appreciation
  9. Hand-eye coordination
  10. Spatial appreciation

Inherent in VR models is the ability to understand the geometry, layout, and/or battery limits of process units and their supporting utility infrastructures. Using a physical representation of an operator or maintenance personnel-an avatar-the VR simulation is used to optimize gauging and inspection rounds by imitating the operational and maintenance staff behavior. This is primarily a spatial system analysis, especially in categories 3, 8, and 10, where working spaces, escape routes, risky areas and transportation routes in the plant could be investigated from a logistical point of view. The resulting analysis could optimize maintenance procedures, or request the maintenance management for improvements or modifications.

A second example could refer to spatial appreciation, but with a purpose of equipment familiarization and hand-eye coordination. In fact, the operation of a highly automated industrial process is largely dependent on the maintainability of the process equipment.

Because of the high economic impact of potential production losses, maintenance during operation is a high priority, and on-the-job training is mandatory to ensure maintenance is properly conducted and performed on time.

Maintenance can be taught and practiced with the avatar experience or in the "first person" scenario for the process machinery and layout. Maintenance issues on diagnostic, timing, and procedures are highlighted and optimized by interactive links to the virtual equipment, as well as to a computer-integrated maintenance and documentation-management system using augmented reality. Capturing instrument calibration and lubrication activities within a VR model provides the means to integrate and align operations and maintenance activities.

As important, the integration of operations, maintenance activities, and checklists using VR models provides a means to establish joint ownership and improve teamwork.

Efficiency, savings

VR-based interactive training is ideal for transferring skills in critical process applications and functional areas in the plant, where live changes or downtime have huge financial impact. This training is non-invasive, and employees can learn procedures in the virtual world without taking out a machine or line or harming themselves.

Time and cost savings of 30 to 40% originate from on-the-job training for new large personnel requirements, considering downtime savings and replication of training programs from plant to plant. Trainers and trainees can be located throughout the world and using web facilities, remote workers can work together in the same virtual area, on a chemical plant or a building site, resulting in a reduction in travel time and expense. In addition, interactive training preserves the plant's best practices and the enterprise replaces the aging workforce.

Start-up efficiency savings of 15 to 25% time reduction originate in "back-on-run" situations from planned or unplanned shutdown, by using VR interactive training to quickly and frequently refresh all plant crew on all their critical procedures.

Maintenance savings of 1 to 3% can be achieved by improving maintenance operator accuracy and performance, and by using data from the training experience as input to improve predictive maintenance strategies.

In summary, VR-based simulation techniques can improve operational efficiency while bringing a realistic, reliable, and safe employee training environment to today's changing workplace.


Maurizio Rovaglio is vice president, Solutions Services, for Invensys Operations Management. Rovaglio can be reached at TobiasScheele is vice president, Operations Management Applications, for Invensys Operations Management, and can be reached at