Editor's Choice

Immersive training for chemicals operators and engineer

January 2023 Editor's Choice IT in Manufacturing

The understandably risk-adverse chemicals sector was already well down the path to digitalisation when COVID-19 hit. The restrictions ushered in to limit the spread of the pandemic accelerated the pace of change, as the industry needed to ramp up safe and reliable remote operations and working wherever possible.

Stephen Reynolds.

Adapting to today’s ‘new normal’, chemicals businesses understand that many of the changes the pandemic brought to working practices are here to stay, and those who’ve invested in digital transformation are already seeing the benefits digitalisation can bring to this highly complex industry, such as process optimisation and risk reduction.

Immersive learning

Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and cloud computing are being used to gather, store and analyse data, which is then turned into actionable insights that drive operational efficiency and safety performance. But there’s another area that’s also piquing interest: immersive training.

As experienced operators and engineers retire, the chemicals industry is facing a generational shift in the workforce and a growing need to pass expertise on to younger workers. However, until recently the sector has been largely reliant on traditional training methods that don’t truly engage the digital natives now joining this workforce.

In a high-risk sector such as chemicals, it’s imperative that all staff are engaged in their training, and retain it, in order to do their job well and safely. The answer lies in immersive training, which brings learning to life in an environment this generation understands and embraces.

Engaging staff

Today’s young workers have grown up with immersive 3D environments in which they can interact, explore, make mistakes and then try again. This may have taken the form of playing video games with their friends, but these kinds of virtual worlds can also be used for industrial training.

Immersive training uses technologies such as augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) to offer engaging, experiential learning in a safe and controlled, realistic virtual environment. Here, bespoke training systems come together with off-the-shelf gaming peripherals such as console controllers and VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, to support the learning of both new and experienced staff.

AR and VR training can be used in a variety of ways, and is critical for plant safety and performance, as it reduces the risk of accidents and the need to shut down plants for real-world training. New operators can learn and practice high-risk industrial procedures in safe training simulators, while teams ‘learn by doing’ through the use of dynamic simulation-based learning scenarios.

The benefits of unification

Generic VR and AR training environments have their place, but by unifying an organisation’s many systems into a single, secure data hub, chemicals companies can reduce the time and effort involved in sharing detailed engineering, data and step up learning by enabling training scenarios specific to their business.

For example, connecting with a company’s digital twin enables organisations to drop trainees into immersive, 3D versions of their real-world plants, and even makes it possible for the training environment to mimic the dynamic process behaviour of the plant.

By using these unique virtual environments, businesses can be confident their staff know their way around plants and understand both the impact of wrong decisions and the performance improvements that come from correct safety and reliability practices, without affecting plant and employee safety and productivity.

Consider a solution in the cloud

When looking to invest in immersive training solutions, it’s worth considering a cloud-based solution wherever possible.

On-premise simulators carry a high upfront capital expense, but a subscription-based cloud solution shifts the cost to operating expenses that match training activity and budgets. Furthermore, on-premise solutions can train only one batch of employees at a time. Cloud-based options, however, remove that constraint for both self-training and instructor-led modules.

Oleum, the European training centre for Total Group’s oil and petrochemical business, was an early adopter of a cloud-based operator training simulator (OTS). By integrating the OTS with its corporate learning management system, it found a modern, scalable, flexible and economic solution that expanded its ability to train operators across the business without spending millions on travel. It also shortened the time taken to train an operator from months to weeks.

Empowering new recruits

BASF is another chemicals business that uses immersive training to teach its new operators, technicians and engineers. It created a virtual reality version of its regional training centre, which enabled its apprentices to undertake the same training virtually. They would begin their training in the virtual environment, before later moving into the real pilot plant.

“They liked the VR training very much, as the system was similar to what they would use at home,” says Alexander Karle, BASF training supervisor for chemical operators. “These are kids straight out of school with no experience in process technology, so they get to take their first steps in a virtual environment, learning to operate systems without any risk to themselves or the equipment. They feel much more confident when they then move into a real-world training environment.”

The trainees return to the VR environment throughout their education. BASF has been happy with the results of the platform and now hopes to develop it as a cloud-based solution so that the apprentices can continue their learning at home.

Maximise training ROI

AR and VR enable businesses to deliver accelerated training that’s sustainable, efficient and effective, maximising return on investment (ROI) in plant personnel training.

Companies looking to the future would be wise to invest in immersive training now. This will ensure they get the most out of their next generation of operators and engineers by providing an engaging, interactive training environment that will enable them to excel.

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