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Is it time to tap into virtual reality?

Aug 31, 2017 | 08:00 PM | Nat Rudarakanchana

Operator training simulation has been a mainstay of the aerospace, nuclear, and process industries’ safety drive for decades. Today, new-generation tools – such as an app developed by Gerdau SA supported by a smart phone and $15 VR googles – are transforming training and saving money and lives

For pilots, spending hours in the mock cockpit of a flight simulator is mandatory. Before heading skyward, pilots-in-training must log multiple hours in this earthbound environment, receiving feedback on the ramifications of their smallest decisions in real-time.

All this is accomplished in a safe, cost-efficient, and repeatable way. No planes, pilots or passengers are exposed to danger or harmed in the process.

A similar approach to training is being implemented increasingly as part of basic training in metals and manufacturing, where equipment and machine operators can engage in operator training simulation (OTS), a recent webinar hosted by Schneider Electric, the Rueil-Malmaison, France-based technology, software and services firm, pointed out.

Simulation training can be simpler to implement than fully immersive and interactive 3-D virtual realities and involve as little as cloud-based software and a computer system, Schneider’s Gregor Fernholz, DYNSIM product manager, explained to listeners.

The simulation must be dynamic, however, so that decisions made by the operator during training result in visible outcomes in the simulated world, Fernholz emphasized.

Such cause-and-effect tracking not only provides a record within the system against which the decision making and learning curve of operators can be assessed but also has the potential to maintain past performance records. Modules can be adapted to reflect real-world scenarios ranging from maintenance training and basic machine procedures, to emergency situations, Fernholz’s presentation pointed out.
The nuclear sector counts as another industry where simulation training is virtually universal due to safety considerations, Fernholz told AMM in a subsequent interview.

“One aspect driving the mandatory adoption of training simulators is safety and the impact of a potential operator error,” Fernholz said. “We’ve been observing similar trends in other industries.”

Part of the adoption in metals, mining, and minerals is rooted in a growing awareness of the value derived from training operators thoroughly, prior to a plant startup, Fernholz, a chemical engineer by training, said.

Implementing simulator training at greenfield facilities can lead to the avoidance or elimination of costly start-up errors, he noted. At a brownfield site, adopting the approach provides for the transfer of institutional knowledge between different generations of operators.
“During training, the operator may make mistakes, but he or she won’t put the operation or the safety of the plant at risk,” Fernholz, who manages such training programs for corporate clients, on behalf of Schneider Electric, emphasized.

“Making mistakes is essential for learning, because it helps you understand the full operation of the plant...Later on, that experience pays off by providing a foundation that allows the operator to move beyond knowing something is wrong to understanding why it’s wrong,” he elaborated.

Customers for Schneider Electric’s training services range from copper smelters and greenfield acid plants, to Canadian mining operations, and offshore gas rigs, Fernholz noted in the webinar. Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile (Codelco), Rio Tinto plc and the BG Group plc. have worked with Schneider, which has tailored training programs to serve each individual company’s program needs.

Exact cost savings attributable to simulation-based training can vary and detailed cost calculations can’t always be shared. However, if start-up time is shortened by 10-, 20- or 30-percent, and delays or errors resulting in downtime are prevented, savings can be huge, sometimes adding up to multi-millions of dollars, Fernholz pointed out.

Without tapping into simulation tools, training must be done “on-the-job,” an approach which can be costly. By definition, troubleshooting specific production errors means those errors must first occur, which is not ideal.

“A training simulator is a tremendously useful tool to transfer knowledge quickly,” Fernholz told AMM.

Still, the path to implementing simulation training is far from hurdle-free. Operators are typically busy people, meaning, on occasion, training classes don’t mesh with or accommodate unpredictable production schedules.

Add to that the fact that often times the most effective instructor hails from the ranks of the operating team, which can be reluctant to lose a strong senior operator, Fernholz noted.

Furthermore, basic simulation systems may only cover “standard” operating conditions, and therefore, are not able to simulate start-up, shut-down, or abnormal situations,

Training scenarios must also be geared to serve the needs of each respective audience, targeting company rookies or old hands, as required. Detailed retraining courses for veterans can involve complex scenarios such as recovery from outages or start-up processes, while employees new to the company most likely only need basic process training, he added.

Another obvious hurdle from management’s perspective is the cost incurred to implement a simulation system. Fernholtz is quick to point out, however, that calculating the cost/benefit equation requires consideration of a number of factors.

“Industry leaders understand the value of training and its’ impact on operation and safety,” he said. “Cost needs to be seen in the light of value. With typical payback times of one year or even less, the value is clearly there.”

To underscore his point, Fernholz cited a 2014 industry study on operator training simulation. The study showed that an investment in such a system typically amounts to less than 2 percent of the overall capital expenditure for that facility.

“That might not be excessive, but not negligible either,” Fernholz said. But in 80 percent of cases, payback is achieved within two years, the study showed. “Thus, the cost might not be negligible, but the payback is quick, so it’s a good investment.”

Gerdau taps into virtual reality

At global steelmaker Gerdau SA, virtual reality has become part of the core curriculum.

In May of this year, Porto Alegre, Brazil-based Gerdau launched a virtual reality app for safety training. Employees at Gerdau special bar quality (SBQ) steel mills in Arkansas and Michigan tested the app during the week of steel’s World Safety Day, one day in April celebrated each year by the WorldSteel Association and across workplaces globally. 

Overall, the initiative drew 2,500 participants in just one week, a Gerdau SA spokeswoman told AMM via e-mail.

Gerdau’s app thrusts users into a steel mill’s maintenance shop, where they identify and rank risks, with a full break-down of their performance provided afterwards. All that’s required to access the app is a smart phone and $15 virtual reality goggles.

“It is something different that catches the attention of all ages and is easy to use,” Leslie Hartford, a safety specialist at Gerdau’s Monroe, Mich. mill, said in a statement. “I was able to take virtual reality goggles home the first weekend we had them. I had my 12-year-old daughter recognizing the hazards in the program.”

In short, the program provides “realistic and impactful learning,” Sandro Piussi, Gerdau’s corporate health and safety consultant, said in a statement to AMM.

Risk perception varies from person-to-person, so the results of the simulation help operating teams stay on the same page as they rank the severity of risks, a second Gerdau safety representative pointed out.

Gerdau executives were proud enough of the innovation to set up a VR booth at their annual investor day in New York. The event typically attracts high-powered analysts and investors intent on dissecting the steelmaker’s balance sheets, rather than sampling the latest in high-tech training tools.

At the event, attendees could sample Gerdau’s VR safety training for themselves. Donning VR goggles, they could jump into the shoes of a Gerdau steel operator and evaluate and execute the decisions and actions that entails as they stood on the polished floors of the five-star New York Palace hotel.

“By learning virtually, you avoid all the time spent on manuals, or going into those live locations and being exposed to those risks,” André Gerdau Johannpeter, Gerdau’s chief executive officer, said in a June 28 interview. “It takes time for a person to understand all the moving parts: the cranes, people moving, material moving, repairs, and so on...There’s all kinds of different things happening in a mill
“But by doing this virtually, a person can learn and avoid these problems when he or she goes into the real situation,” Johannpeter said. In his presentation to investors, he cited virtual reality training as an example of company-wide modernization.

The future is unreal

For some, virtual reality represents the future of training in manufacturing, a form of best practice and a much-needed advance.

This approach can replace the sometimes “deplorable” training now offered to steelworkers and other operational staff, Richard Oppelt, Accenture plc’s principal strategy director for metals, noted during a technology panel at AMM’s Steel Survival Strategies conference in 2017.
“I think tremendous strides can be made in the area of training,” said Oppelt, a 40-year-plus veteran of the steel industry. “When I look at the safety videos and training that’s provided to many of the workers, quite candidly, it’s deplorable.

“The next step in safety is going to come by having better simulations and being better able to enable workers, before they step out onto the plant floor,” he told delegates on June 26.

For Fernholz, simulation-based training is a natural fit against a background of changing demographics in the manufacturing sector. As baby-boomers retire, they leave the future of manufacturing in the hands of “digital natives.” who likely learn faster with simulation technologies, he said.

“Virtual reality and immersive training are recent developments that are being adopted by early movers in the industry, especially in regions with production and assets in remote locations,” Fernholz added. “Technology is also moving into maintenance training and providing support through augmented reality in the field.”

Schneider Electric is no newcomer to the field. In fact, the company’s simulation software has counted as a core business for fifty years. At last count, Schneider had executed more than 900 projects in the simulation training arena.

And it continues to push forward. Latest plans call for the launch of a new cloud-based simulation platform, dubbed ‘Online Experience.’


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