Virtual Reality Helps Field Operators Improve Performance

Jan. 8, 2014
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.

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."


Figure 1. 3D simulator allows field operators to explore many different on-site scenarios. Source: Siemens.

IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCEAt 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. For five weeks, the operators spent eight hours a day "walking around" a detailed 3D graphical model of the FPSO. The primary purpose was to allow the operators to familiarize themselves with their future work environment, to know where they are located on the ship, where to find equipment and how to go there efficiently. A second purpose was to teach them to operate equipment and to execute SOPs — such as locating equipment on deck, going there, finding out its status, and taking appropriate action.

Figure 2. Kiosk enables both new and experienced operators to sharpen their skills. Source: Invensys.

"All operators who had used PCs before were capable of 'walking inside' with barely half a day of introduction to the tool because of its highly intuitive interface and functionality access. The operators readily embraced the tool and described the training environment as very practical, as opposed to theoretical. Though of course, the two are necessary to provide the operator a more-comprehensive understanding of the meaning and granularity of their tasks and duties," explains Geiss.In addition, the instructor effectively was able to look over the operators' shoulders by observing their individual screens, following their actions in real time, and creating procedures with prompts to guide operators through their tasks. While COMOS Walkinside currently is better known in the oil and gas industry, Geiss believes the chemical industry presents a huge opportunity for the technology — one that can only grow in the future as the industry has to juggle increased environmental regulation, raw material availability, the use of new materials, and fluctuating price and cost trends. "Changing market requirements are presenting ever new challenges for enterprises in the industry — and that opens up new opportunities for 3D visualization technology." NEW MODELING CAPABILITIESTwo years ago, Invensys, London, U.K., started to pilot its SimSci-Esscor Kiosk 3D simulation training with ENI at the Italian company's Gela refinery on the southern coast of Sicily. By using and applying gaming and other skill sets more familiar to younger employees, EYESIM is designed to appeal to both new and more-experienced engineering staff (Figure 2)."Invensys has since delivered four additional Kiosk units to other refineries in the ENI group and has recently also provided one to an upstream oil and gas company based in the U.K. to help them evaluate the competency of their offshore operators," explains Richmond.The firm also has developed a 3D visualization tool for advanced understanding of a pressurized water reactor (PWR) for a training and service provider to the nuclear industry. "This project couples high-fidelity dynamic simulation of the reactor with a powerful 3D GUI [graphical user interface] that allows dynamic visualization of the behavior using transparency, color coding and dynamic animation," he adds. Also new is the EYESIM e-learning generic virtual crude unit system that has just been delivered to a major petrochemical company in Japan. This system enables a classroom of ten operators to self-train on both control room and plant scenarios based on a high-fidelity dynamic process model and a virtual reality model of a crude unit.The benefits of such training are easily identified, he says, because better-trained operators will lead to safer and more efficient operation of plant assets. "To quantify those benefits, however, is a more subjective exercise. If a plant were to analyze their unplanned shutdowns, lost production, near misses and accident data, they would find that human error was a significant factor and that both control room and outside operators contribute to those incidents." However, chemical manufacturers normally wait until technology has been proven elsewhere before investing in it, he notes. "For that reason, the companies we work with today come from forward-looking technology groups or with a budget taken from innovation resourcing. The cost of these latest developments is on par or less than for the equivalent control-room-operator training systems. This means that we are able to provide a higher service at the same market price point."Invensys is focusing continuing development of EYESIM in four main areas.First is a selection of new virtual-reality capabilities. Each new version of the engine includes faster rendering, shorter loading and enhanced animation and visualization of the virtual environment. "These all lead to a more-immersive environment to improve the training realism," Richmond emphasizes.Second is the provision of a more-powerful software development toolkit, which helps both to further automate the engineering process and reduce the cost of finding a solution.Third is improved usability. Enhanced features include newly designed instructor station, iPad/iPhone (Figure 3) and tablet interfaces, location maps and contextual help.

Figure 3. Users can access 3D simulation on their smart phones. Source: Invensys.

Fourth is hardware and virtual reality (VR) technology. "We constantly evaluate the market for the best VR hardware available and build interfaces to the EYESIM environment. Exciting new technologies include Oculus Rift (VR headset), Omni (walking platform), LEAP Motion (hand motion detection), and new technologies to deliver cave automatic virtual environments (i.e., ones in which images are projected onto three or more walls of a room) at a fraction of the current costs," he notes.PRODUCTIVE PARTNERSHIP"In some industries, 3D visualization techniques are very important, for example operation of machinery in the minerals extraction industry, and for training for command and control scenarios such as fire and evacuation. For the process industries, the main market potential is seen in the training of field operators," notes Ross. "The benefits for them include getting a more-realistic training experience and a motivating environment that really engages the trainee." [For his thoughts on how to make the most of operator training simulators, see "Improve Operator Training."]To realize this potential, Honeywell for two years has worked with Virthualis, Milan, Italy, an engineering and research firm focused on using 3D simulation to improve decision-making in the design and implementation of operator training. The Italian company's MindSafe solution now is fully integrated with Honeywell's UniSim process simulator, providing a holistic virtual environment that can be used to efficiently design, analyze and verify plant operations.UniSim precisely models what happens inside the pipework and process equipment, while Virthualis' 3D technology and accident simulation does the same for the external environment. This creates realistic, interactive scenarios that respond to changing conditions, for example how heat from fires can influence pressures and other conditions in pipes and equipment, which in turn possibly can cause leaks.At the plant level, tasks that can be accomplished include planning and monitoring different training/assessment sessions, and maintaining a history of human errors and operator performance indicators. At the corporate level, training efficiency is improved, accident probability and consequences are reduced while efficiency and safety in plant operations and maintenance are increased."While the benefits of 3D training of field operators has not yet been specifically quantified, users of these solutions tell us that such benefits are significant," Ross concludes.
Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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