Virtual Reality Helps Field Operators Improve Performance

Immersive high-fidelity 3D visualization now is starting to play a role in the training of operators and maintenance staff at plants. Here's a rundown of some initiatives already underway.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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The ongoing drive for higher efficiency and greater safety in an ever-more-stringent regulatory environment is prompting chemical makers to consider new ways to improve training of operators and other staff. Use of 3D visualization and virtual reality can significantly help, believe a number of vendors, including Siemens, Invensys and Honeywell.

"We definitely see the chemical industry progressing in terms of adopting 3D visualization techniques for its training needs," says Bonn, Germany-based Andreas Geiss, vice president COMOS industry solutions for Siemens.

However, the conservative nature of the chemical industry means that 3D virtual reality training and its applications are taking longer to become universally adopted, notes Manchester, U.K.-based Peter Richmond, EYESIM Product Manager for Invensys. "Although it is now commonly accepted as best practice to use simulation-based training for control room operators, the inclusion of field operators, through 3D virtual reality training applications, has taken longer to be rolled out."

However, customers are showing increasing interest. "In a number of cases, we have seen 3D technology as part of project specifications, which is a good indication that it is becoming an accepted technology for field operator training," he adds.

Chemical manufacturers normally wait until technology has been proven elsewhere before investing in it, agrees Martin Ross, Bracknell, U.K.-based UniSim product manager for Honeywell Process Solutions. So, the industry still has some way to go in accepting 3D visualization technologies. "Currently, the price of 3D solutions is the main barrier, but this is likely to change as technology developments are made which the training industry can leverage."

At the heart of Siemens' 3D offerings is the COMOS Walkinside immersive training simulator (ITS). Here, field operators can conduct their training in an authentic 3D virtual reality model — including geo-localization training, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and health, safety and environmental (HSE) incident scenarios (Figure 1).

"Innovative plant-specific simulations shorten learning times and enhance training retention, capitalizing on the human brain's ability to call back graphic memory and experiences. Trainees can virtually move around and test their own ability and comfort for making decisions during their work order navigation route, while interacting with one another as well as with the plant equipment — before physically seeing them. This strongly reinforces learning outcomes, reducing traditional on-site training and enhances operational safety," adds Geiss.

The Walkinside ITS environment includes an instructor training console option — similar to a control room operator-training simulator — to manage and monitor operator team training sessions, enable trainee-performance grading and promote greater collaboration. It also allows multi-trainee environments, supporting multi-avatar scenarios for more-complex work orders and to train how to communicate and coordinate actions in case of HSE incidents in the plant. Because the ITS doesn't need to be integrated into existing systems, users benefit from low deployment costs, notes Geiss.

COMOS enables users to directly access equipment characteristics, maintenance history and documentation. Similarly, an engineer working with the engineering and maintenance database can call up the 3D view of the equipment and see it in its spatial context. With COMOS, all data created during the engineering stages — including 3D data — are available at any time and at all lifecycle phases of the plant. Even very large models can be rendered independently from the original CAD format, creating a real-life experience.

All this, says Geiss, is part of an unmistakable trend towards more-seamless 3D solutions. For example, in April 2013, Siemens announced a strategic alliance with information modeling specialist Bentley Systems, Exton, Pa. The aim was to increase interoperability between Siemens' COMOS engineering software and Bentley's OpenPlant 2D/3D system for plant design and construction, to create a system that will allow the capture, exchange and further utilization of data and information spanning the entire plant lifecycle, from engineering through to plant operations across all disciplines.

Today, he notes, that relationship is very much focused on providing solutions for the process industries via the ISO 15926 data exchange standard: "Using ISO 15926 significantly reduces the engineering overhead for our customers by avoiding data inconsistency and duplication. We have deliberately avoided a proprietary approach, choosing instead ISO 15926 as the industrial standard model. This means both companies, Siemens and Bentley, can further develop the functions of their products, and exchange data via a neutral interface. We are convinced that our mutual commitment to ISO 15926 will result in faster market penetration and richer solutions, because only tools that can supply open data will enjoy long-term success and sustained growth for both companies."

As an example of the power of 3D training, he cites the case of a global company with upstream operations that recently decided to train field operators for a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel using COMOS Walkinside's ITS.

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