Training Takes on an Added Dimension

Virtual, mixed and augmented reality are revolutionizing learning

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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More and more trainees in the chemical industry are experiencing an enhanced visual “reality” that improves their learning. Developments by Schneider Electric, ABB and Yokogawa exemplify the trend.

While virtual reality (VR) technology — total immersion in a 3D scene — is more established, Schneider Electric, Andover, Mass., believes augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) will become increasingly important as advances occur in both hardware and software.

The company considers AR to be a tablet- or mobile-phone-based experience where a user looks at a live camera feed on the screen with a 2D or 3D object or information overlaid. In contrast, MR involves a user wearing a holographic computer that creates 2D/3D augmented graphic images on a lens.

“Increased processing power and reduced size of the AR tablet and MR wearable devices together with rapid advances in computer vision approaches for 2D and 3D scene recognition, coupled with information and asset management software, will enable new ways for the workforce to carry out their daily operations and create new efficiencies and ways to collaborate,” explains Peter Richmond, AR/VR business development director, Sale, U.K.

For MR, one device that Schneider is working with is the Microsoft HoloLens headset.

“We are getting great feedback from users on how very realistic it is. So far, it has been used in training on normal and abnormal SOPs [standard operating procedures], emergency preparedness, panel- and field-team training, and plant familiarization. The trainees really believe what they are seeing and completely engage with it,” he says.

The company particularly is focusing now on switchgear maintenance using the HoloLens to demonstrate how wearable MR applications may impact field personnel in the future.

Using a digital twin of the switchgear, the HoloLens allows staff to visualize hidden details, such as an exploded view of the internal mechanisms, or can lead them step-by-step through a maintenance procedure.

“Having the information in front of the operators’ eyes as they are looking at the real device with hands free to operate will be a powerful way to train for and carry out maintenance tasks in the future,” Richmond believes.

HoloLens is perfect for showcasing the potential of these technologies but for now mostly will serve for training and design duties until a version is certified for harsh industrial environments, he adds.

Schneider continues to work closely with Italian refining company ENI, Milan, one of the earliest adopters of 3D simulation technologies. In 2010, for example, the refiner pioneered the use of EyeSim 3D simulation training kiosks (from Invensys, a company since acquired by Schneider) for operators at its Gela refinery on the southern coast of Sicily, before deploying them in other sites around the world.

“We are still partners and have been working recently with the upstream R&D group on how immersive training and enhanced operation applications of AR, MR and VR technology can impact their operations. The solutions range from a tablet-based plant information system to the more classic immersive training system for training panel and field operators,” Richmond says.

Different customers use immersive training in different ways, he notes: “It gives you the ability to do more coordinated training, so for example you can use it to study reactions and communications between control room operators and field operators. There are lots of soft benefits like this — i.e., teaching a team to be a team.”

For many years, simulation-based training of panel operators has been considered a best practice. This involves creating photorealistic real-time VR environments that allow the trainee to experience and interact with life-like normal and abnormal plant conditions. The next step is to provide the same level of simulation-based training to field operators.

New engineers also can benefit from such simulations. For example, one oil and gas (O&G) company built a simulation model specific to one plant that is fairly representative of all the company’s sites. So, it can do both bespoke training for the particular plant and more generic training for the others.

The company has created a curriculum that includes immersive training. “This allows it to provide more extensive and engaging training courses to help ensure their operators are familiar with the plant operations and the common principles behind their day-to-day work,” he notes. It also is being used for competency assessment (Figure 1).

Another O&G company is looking at it as a tool to be used much earlier in competency training — i.e., in behavioral training,” says Richmond. The idea is to use VR to put people in situations to test their learning (Figure 2).

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