min read
October 13, 2016

Virtual Reality for Workplace Safety in the Industrial & Manufacturing Industry

Virtual Reality

The immersive power of VR holds the potential to reintroduce and magnify the in-person learning that was once part of apprenticing and learning a physical trade.Training is important, and this axiom holds true across all industries, business sectors and verticals. Even one of Hollywood's latest offerings is a case study for the vital importance of comprehensive training during moments of crisis. In the digital age, however, we can't expect the robust knowledge level of heroes like Captain Sullenberger to be disseminated in traditional ways. Fortunately, the emergence of virtual reality tools provide us with uniquely powerful new conduits for training and safety education.

The Irreplaceable Value of Hands-On Education

Learning by doing, or experiential learning, has always been recognized as a vital method of transmitting knowledge, especially for physical or crisis-related activities. Early versions of flight simulators were a primitive type of virtual reality, because it was understood that pilots needed hands-on experience in responding to exceptional circumstances, and it wasn't possible or safe to have them go through emergency scenarios while flying in real planes. The military was an early adopter of VR in its training programs because there were obvious benefits in training soldiers for battlefield scenarios before putting them on the actual battlefield. Now, both flight simulators and military training utilize ever-more-sophisticated versions of virtual reality while the industrial and manufacturing sectors are beginning to take notice.

VR Training Requires Proactive Physical Engagement

The value of virtual reality for workplace safety initiatives lies in its ability to overcome classic learning problems, especially at the large scale involved in a manufacturing setting. The most obvious of these problems is the inherent limitation of 2D written or video material in preparing workers for real-life situations. Up until now, participating in such training programs involved a worker passively watching a video or reading a printed safety procedure, and then perhaps being asked to answer questions about the material. This lack of realism in traditional teaching procedures shows up as a glaring defect when compared with the immersive experience of VR training. In virtual safety training, the worker directly experiences many of the actual sights and sounds of a real-life emergency and learns to respond appropriately to such a situation regardless of his or her emotional reaction.

VR Gains Acceptance as a Serious Technology

When VR first became popular, it was associated with gaming and other esoteric or recreational uses, and the corporate/industrial world didn't immediately take it seriously. Most major advancements in technology start out being viewed as toys or fantasies; this was true of the telephone, the internal combustion engine, and probably every other truly revolutionary invention. It's only when their usefulness becomes widespread, familiar and undeniable that they are treated as the serious disruptions that they really are. Even though it still generates plenty of gaming-related publicity, VR is clearly emerging as a disruptor to pay attention to in almost every business sector. As PCWorld puts it, "VR just got serious and you should be paying attention."

Saving Money by Investing in VR Technology

VR is still at the very beginnings of realizing its substantial potential to save money in the industrial sector. The operation of entire manufacturing plants, including all machines and processes, will be transformed in the coming years. Looking just at the benefits offered by virtual safety training, the savings arise from a range of sources: When workers are better trained, there are fewer accidents. In addition to fewer injury-related costs and production delays, a better safety record translates into less risk and lower insurance costs. As long ago as 2007, VR was being proposed as a cost-saving, on-demand resource for workers. Though very conceptual, that 2007 paper likely helped set the stage for the many innovations making headlines today. VR can help overcome the lack of on-demand access to training because that virtual world can be summoned any time the VR headset is needed. This dedicated resource makes safety knowledge always accessible.

VR is a Natural Fit for Millennial Workers

As industrial and manufacturing positions increasingly fill with younger workers, it's appropriate to make use of the technology that's familiar to this generation. Accustomed to extensive and sophisticated gaming platforms, younger workers find it easier to make the transition from virtual reality safety training to real-world practices. With 73 percent of millennials expressing an interest in virtual reality, the use of VR in the workplace feels like a natural evolution. As a matter of fact, companies are even using VR as a tool to attract top talent. The allure of this fascinating technology isn't limited to the youngest generation, however; 70 percent of Gen X-ers and 64 percent of baby boomers also state that they are drawn to the possibilities offered by VR. According to a recent survey, safety and manufacturing skills training was the second-most popular application of VR and augmented reality among U.S. manufacturers. The ways in which those manufacturers are applying VR and AR to their everyday dealings continues to evolve, as well. The survey noted improvements in materials handling, remote maintenance, augmented assembly and improved inspection.

VR Enhances Safety Inspections

An often overlooked part of safety and regulations, inspections can be more efficiently completed with the help of AR or VR: Imagine a set of tools that would allow inspectors to model expected conditions or visual cues against what they were actually seeing in front of them, more easily diagnosing problems and assigning to-do items to safety maintenance groups at manufacturers across the world.

Case Studies in VR for Workplace Safety

  • Invensys recently launched its Immersive Virtual Reality Plant (IVRP), a "human-machine interface" that promises to change the entire relationship between operator/engineers and their chemical processing plant. While the reach of this VR system extends far beyond safety training, that is one primary element that the program was designed to address. It allows plant personnel to be exposed to hazardous situations and to interact with them in a realistic and yet completely safe manner. Not only are workers protected by the use of VR, but sensitive and expensive equipment is protected as well, as operators learn to interact with it in virtual crisis conditions. Intended for scaling across many different plant environments in the process industry, IVRP reduces the accident rate through operator training that includes immediate feedback in fully realistic scenarios.
  • At the UK's Eggborough Power Station K, tech companies Arithmetica and Transmission TX partnered to create an immersive VR training experience for workers at the power station, which delivers coal-fired power and biomass conversion. The VR experience simulated a real-life hazardous environment, providing a 360-degree video experience via consumer-friendly and fully available Samsung Gear VR headsets.
  • Australia's UNSW School of Mining Engineering uses VR training modules that include simulations of escape from a potentially fatal outburst event in a longwall mine. Students have the opportunity to go beyond textbooks and practice responding to a hazardous situation in an immersive simulated terrain. This crucial "hands-on" training improves their education at the institutional level even before they leave the academic setting for a real-world mine.
  • Bechtel has invested in systems that were originally designed to teach best practices for avoiding accidents in warehouses or manufacturing facilities. These systems are now being repurposed for jobsite safety in Bechtel's innovation headquarters in Houston. As the training modules are deployed and developed, data will be collected to optimize future training and to plan for real-world programs in better, more efficient ways.
  • One of the U.S. leaders in this area is Ford, which outfits its employees with VR experiences to simulate the construction of upcoming models in its plants, years before the cars start rolling out of the warehouse doors. This virtual reality program is responsive and proactive, measuring the way that employees would approach assigned tasks. The intent of this VR application is to encourage workers to create the tools and processes they need in order to create a safer production environment. By adopting this VR layer of oversight, the entire assembly process is streamlined and made safer and more efficient from beginning to end. Ford even invested time in measuring body stress and comfort levels to make sure their employees weren't risking injury in their assembly of large cars like the F-150. The introduction of VR in the manufacturing process resulted in an injury reduction rate of 70 percent, according to Ford.

The immersive power of VR holds the potential to reintroduce and magnify the in-person learning that was once part of apprenticing and learning a physical trade. Workers can gain experience in recognizing hazards and responding to crises while remaining physically safe. Virtual reality is so effective at enhancing skills and reducing accidents that it won't be long before risk managers require a course of VR safety training. With nearly three in four U.S. manufacturing outfits saying VR/AR adoption will be at least moderately important to their future competitiveness in the next few years, other applications will likely be approached by the industry. And with 90 percent of those same manufacturers saying more than half of their competitive set will be using AR or VR to get ahead, the time to adopt is now.

Centric Digital