Immersive learning provides training catalyst the chemicals workforce needs
Opinion

Immersive learning provides training catalyst the chemicals workforce needs

Upskilling a new generation of workers within the constraints of the new normal depends on cutting-edge solutions such as immersive training. Its benefits include plant-specific learning, reduced risks and costs, and faster training times

  • By Stephen Reynolds , Industry Principal – Chemicals, AVEVA | August 17, 2022

Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen how connected meetings bring us together in one room. It’s now possible to take a virtual class photo, where all participants gather in a room virtually. But the benefits of remote, collaborative software go further than cool backdrops or virtual auditoria. In the new normal, industrial businesses can replicate hands-on training from thousands of miles away.

Immersive training takes the virtual meeting one step further. The technology brings learning to life in an environment this generation understands and embraces.

For businesses with remote or dangerous installations, such as in chemicals or oil and gas, immersive training offers engineers, technicians and other professionals an interactive learning classroom where they can simulate possible scenarios, and gain (virtual) hands-on experience in high-risk situations.

UNDERSTANDING IMMERSIVE TRAINING

At its core, immersive training uses technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to create engaging, experiential learning in a safe, controlled and virtual environment. Trainees may put on off-the-shelf gaming peripherals such as console controllers and VR headsets like the Oculus Rift to access bespoke training programs that support learning for both new and experienced staff.

To draw a parallel with another industry, trainee pilots use flight simulators to understand how aircraft operate in a variety of environments and conditions. The chemicals industry carries many similar risks. Just as an airline wouldn’t put an untrained pilot in command of a plane, chemicals companies aren’t going to take the risk of letting inexperienced personnel operate their plants.

AR and VR training can be used in many different ways. The technologies can offer an introduction to facilities and installations. They can also support safety and performance by reducing the risk of accidents and the need to shut down plants for real-world training. Novice operators can practice high-risk industrial procedures in safe training simulators, and teams can work together to strategize and test new products Immersive training minimizes project risks, facilitates accelerated training with a lower budgetary outlay and maximizes ROI – all while maintaining safe plant operation. And because simulating chemicals processes saves on energy and raw materials, virtual training offers significant sustainability benefits.

SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE

The need for new ways of training has gained currency as experienced operators and engineers retire. Like other industrial sectors, the chemical business faces a generational shift in the workforce and a growing need to pass expertise onto younger workers.

Until recently, however, the sector has been largely reliant on traditional training methods that do not truly engage the digital natives that will soon form the majority of the workforce.

Millennials and Gen Z workers have grown up with and intuitively understand immersive 3D settings where they can interact, explore, make mistakes, and then try again. This understanding may come from video games, but such virtual worlds can also be leveraged for industrial training.

Immersive training brings learning to life in a way this generation understands and embraces. The use of simulations, role play, and virtual walkthroughs are all elements of immersive learning.

UNIFY THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE

While off-the-shelf VR and AR training environments have their place, unifying an organization’s many systems into a single, secure data hub can help chemical companies unlock the benefits of immersive learning. Such a unified environment reduces the time and effort involved in sharing detailed engineering data and accelerates learning by enabling business-specific outcomes.

Linking up with a company’s digital twin, for example, enables organizations to parachute trainees into immersive, 3D versions of real-world plants. There, they can operate within an environment that mimics the dynamic process behavior of the plant. Such bespoke solutions build businesses’ confidence in their staff on several levels.

Staff quickly learn their way around plants. They can easily understand the impact of wrong decisions. And they experience how correct safety and reliability improve plant performance without affecting health and productivity.

At chemical producer BASF, a virtual training center enables 600 new operators and engineers each year to learn about their new workplace remotely before moving into the real pilot plant. Trainees, often fresh graduates unfamiliar with process technology, can take their first steps in virtual environments similar to the gaming consoles they know. Early users appreciated the digital approach and reported a sense of confidence around complex equipment and in subsequent real-world training set-ups.

CONSIDER CLOUD SOLUTIONS

The possibilities of immersive training truly come into their own when anchored within cloud-based solutions. On-premises simulators carry a high up[1]front capital expense and can only train one batch of employees at a time. By contrast, a subscription-based cloud solution shifts the cost to operating expenses that match training activity and budgets. Furthermore, cloud solutions open up training to a significantly larger group of employees that may be located anywhere – with trainees able to access modules on demand OLEUM, the European training center 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, and lowering the time taken to train an operator from months to weeks.

MAXIMIZE TRAINING ROI

By enabling businesses to deliver accelerated training that is sustainable, efficient, and effective, learning based on technologies such as AR and VR helps maximize return on investment (ROI) in plant personnel training. Not only are fewer training installations required, but travel costs are saved with virtual learning. Similarly, scalable cloud-based systems offer better value for money. AVEVA data shows that immersive learning environments can generate as much as 40% in training time and cost savings.

The latest generation of immersive digital tools are enabling businesses to enhance the efficiency and development of their training programs in an efficient and flexible manner. As a new generation of digital-native employees enters the workforce, future-forward companies would be wise to invest in immersive training now if they want to build attractive workplaces that provide high job satisfaction and enable staff to excel. Better training means better results.

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