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Virtual reality can address the skills crisis
January 2012, IT in Manufacturing


As a leading research and consulting organisation focused on the process industries, manufacturing, infrastructure and other industrial sectors, ARC Advisory Group has been following the emerging skills crises closely, its impact on industry, and potential solutions. In today’s business environment, manufacturing companies must push their plants to the limit, while at the same time, both processes and control systems become increasingly more complex.

Staffed largely by ageing workforces, with many experienced operators getting ready to retire, companies need to ensure that they can continue to operate their plants in a safe, reliable and profitable manner. Operator training simulator (OTS) systems provide an excellent way to train new operators and refresh the skills of experienced ones.

With today’s business demands, the need for well-trained operators continues to increase. Many plants now operate with feed stocks and energy costs that change frequently depending on the source and market conditions. In addition, satisfying rapidly changing demand creates constant fluctuations and potential instabilities in unit operations that challenge even the most adroit process plants.

The changing demographics complicate the need to improve operations. The US Bureau of Labour Statistics indicates that more than 25% of the working population will soon reach retirement age. This could result in a shortage of almost 10 million workers. By 2030, more than 70 million people in the US will retire, with only about 30 million people available to replace them. A similar scenario is playing out in the European Union and in other developed nations, including South Africa.

The loss of knowledge and shortage of workers will jeopardise an organisation’s ability to operate safely and profitably. Human errors are costly, not only in terms of off-spec product and unscheduled downtime, but also in terms of equipment damage, environmental harm and worker safety.

Janice Abel
Janice Abel

Immersive 3D VR becomes a reality for operator training

Addressing the skills gap of younger workers requires a host of techniques. These include classroom, on-the-job and computer-based training, site visits to similar plants and the use of high fidelity training simulators. Most young operators have never experienced a plant maintenance turnaround or a critical situation. The only way to ensure that they will take the proper action during a crisis is to prepare them for one. Most good training simulators allow for hands-on, scenario-based training to teach operators how to deal with normal and emergency situations without compromising the actual plant, worker safety, and the environment. Few other tools offer this type of training opportunity.

Simulators also provide a great way to keep the current workforce performing at a high level of proficiency. Preventable human errors cause approximately 40 percent of all abnormal situations. Better-trained operators make fewer mistakes, recognise process upsets earlier, and can initiate the appropriate steps and actions to mitigate any potentially harmful, wasteful, or detrimental effects.

In training, realism is very important. Model fidelity must be sufficient to replicate the response of the plant so that the operators cannot tell the difference between the simulation and the real thing. The more realistic the simulation, the more the trainees will accept the method and retain what they have learned from their experience with the simulator.

Virtual reality (VR) adds another dimension of realism to simulation. VR has been used with excellent results for many years to train astronauts, pilots and military personnel. Now, high fidelity 3D virtual reality simulators are available for the process manufacturing and energy industries. VR technology – whether 3D graphics with avatars that interact with the plant and each other or a host of other immersive technologies that use stereoscopic 3D goggles and gloves – has the potential to significantly change the way operators in the process industries train. This is especially true for addressing the skill gap of younger workers who tend to embrace the latest technology.

In one example, Invensys, has developed a VR training simulator for the US Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) that extends the training scope to both control room and outside operators and allows them to coordinate activities and work as a team the way they would in a real plant. The simulator also allows them to see parts diagrams, work orders and examine the inside of vessels – which can be rigorously modelled – during training sessions. In the virtual world, trainees can perform routine tasks such as opening and closing valves and turning on pumps. It is even possible to practice extinguishing a virtual fire during a simulated emergency; a training routine that could not be attempted in a real plant. This type of experience is unlike other simulators and reinforces learning by bringing virtual reality closer to reality in the process world.

Experienced operators and engineers should also find immersive simulators appealing because of its high-fidelity process and control simulation capability, plus its VR capability that provides a realistic and safe training environment for improving efficiency and skills.

For more information contact Paul Miller, ARC Advisory Group, +1 781 471 1126, pmiller@arcweb.com, www.arcweb.com


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