As lockdown grounds engineers, all face-to-face training is cancelled – but the show must go on. How can the sector ensure professionals learn the essential practical skills they need? Is virtual reality the answer?
Being perched 100m above the waves trying to fix the blades on a gargantuan wind turbine as it sways to and fro in the wind is terrifying. However, it can be less so if you’ve done it before – in the virtual world. So says Pat O’Connor, whose virtual-reality content firm VRAI creates these kinds of experiences to help engineers prepare and train. Don a headset and you’re up there in the North Sea struggling against the elements. When you do it for real, you’re already experienced.
With lockdown meaning hands-on and face-to-face training for engineers is limited, is VR, augmented (AR) and mixed reality finally coming of age? What’s the best way to deliver training when everything has shut down?
Covid-19 has forced the engineering sector to face urgent challenges – from business continuity to lack of staff, to supply chain problems and travel restrictions. But the show must go on – with essential services depending upon it.
“Now that people and businesses are starting to get their heads back above water, we are seeing a significant rising demand in cloud-based learning,” says Graham Provost, global director at Aveva Unified Learning. “Companies that were already investing in AR, VR and AI are either ramping up or staying the course – as providing a great user experience for remote learning is viewed as a vital part of their future.”
VR is already established as a training tool for energy, military and defence sectors and it has been used to train rail engineers in specialist equipment. Where once fighter jet pilots would train on physical simulators, they can now hone their skills via a headset. Oil and gas companies use VR to train operations and maintenance staff in preparation for hazardous environments, and chemical companies use augmented and virtual learning tailored for individuals. No longer do people need to travel for training.
AR could be the perfect tool to keep businesses ticking over, writes Patrick Liddy, chief executive of Ireland-based Utility AR. An onsite worker wearing AR glasses could be guided by experts to diagnose and resolve issues, or use QR codes to be guided hands-free through maintenance tasks via AR.
Is it feasible to begin delivering training via mixed realities in the face of the crisis? Now there’s a timely confluence of technologies, says O’Connor, which means VR may live up to the hype of recent years: cheaper headsets – now about $400 (£320) a piece, better broadband, and the availability of cloud computing.
Most recently, thousands of returning medics and student doctors and nurses are being offered the chance to brush up or perfect their skills in the virtual world. Using Oculus Rift headsets, they can practise treating patients on an immersive ward using technology offered for free during the crisis by VR company Oxford Medical Simulation to hospitals and universities across the UK and North America.
More widely, there’s a disconnect between the promise of VR and AR, and what is happening on the ground. A minute of VR content can cost tens of thousands of dollars to create, while few engineering firms beyond energy and the military currently use it for training.
In the immediate aftermath of lockdown, training has been hastily put on the back burner as companies scramble to keep basic operations ticking over. Sally O’Connell, who manages the training centre at global steam systems company Spirax Sarco, points out that her clients can’t down tools – they maintain boiler houses for facilities including hospitals.
“They’ve got to keep the steam flowing safely – they are key workers but they’re used to training face-to-face,” she says. “They’re hands-on guys – many won’t even work with computers.” Recently the company has delivered short webinars to support maintenance staff. “No one knows how long this will go on for and we want to support them.”
As for internal training, there’s growing interest from employees with time on their hands, particularly in online courses. This year O’Connell plans to look again at the potential of VR, AR and mixed reality further down the line. “It’s expensive. Ten minutes of content will take hours and hours of work. And not everyone will feel comfortable with headsets,” she says.
To understand when and where VR might be appropriate, you need to understand what you want to achieve, says Andrew Holway, founder of SkillSprint – which works on the concept that people learn best by doing, in intensive live situations alongside each other, and with guidance from a qualified trainer. Compare this experience, he says, to the online learning used for compliance purposes – delivering health and safety, ‘onboarding’ hundreds of new employees at a time, with video after video. “The forgetting curve is brutal,” he says. “Nobody remembers anything after a few days.”
Where VR might be useful for teaching complex theories such as fluid dynamics, real learning takes place in social situations, he says. Expert, technical knowledge is ‘tacit’ – the type that can’t easily be communicated through words or written down. This could be learning about the physics of wingtips, or how to use complex equipment. “It’s hard to teach,” says Holway. “It has to be hands-on and in context – the type of learning that typically occurs in apprenticeships.”
While Holway says you “can’t get your hands dirty” with VR, companies are making strides developing haptic controls to give an individual physical feedback from the virtual world. But as many observers note, VR and haptics have been hyped but don’t yet lived up to expectations.
Learning doesn’t need VR or AR to be interactive. Institutions such as the Open University have successfully refined online learning for decades. ‘E-learning’ once had a bad press – “you’d listen to someone witter on for ages, face multiple-choice questions and the answer was always ‘b’,” says Martin Davies, head of digital learning products at the IET. But now, experts understand how to design engaging training. “We’ve split our hour-long courses into bite-sized chunks of about five minutes,” says Davies. “We can deliver them over mobile, so you can do it anywhere.” Pre Covid-19, clients such as Royal Mail and United Utilities appreciated the cost savings and the flexibility of delivery – employees didn’t have to attend pricey off-site courses. Now it could be indispensable.
This type of training is handy for individuals seeking to brush up technical skills or boost their continuing professional development. There are free career-focused webinars offered by the IET too, which enable budding engineers to improve on their soft skills, which complement their technical skills, and allow them to reach their potential in the remote-working space and once the restrictions have been lifted.
Meanwhile, since the crisis started, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has seen demand for webinars ramp up and is now running one every other week rather than month, accommodating some 1,000 individuals at a time for subjects ranging from managing virtual meetings to more skills-driven courses.
“What works best is live virtual classrooms with small groups,” says Mark Pepperell, head of commercial training at IMechE. “Our experts prefer to ‘see’ what people understand. In a technical training environment, that live interaction in a virtual classroom is really important.” Since lockdown, the IMechE has seen demand for training rise and has just launched an additive manufacturing programme in webinar and virtual classroom form.
The IMechE has chosen not to invest in VR training – it’s too pricey and too much of a blunt instrument for its purposes. “VR can be engaging and novel, but you are assuming everyone is at the same starting point – like the first level of a game,” says Pepperell, though it does have its place, he adds.
Certsure, a certification body for the electrical industry, has stopped all face-to-face assessments, and is busily boosting online learning resources – webinars on technical topics for contractors, for instance.
Online in-house training will definitely boom during the crisis, agrees Gavin Farmer, head of commercial at Ansible Motion – not least because staff will have time on their hands. He’s seen software providers in the simulation industry waive fees during lockdown for training that would normally carry a price. “So our engineers will have a chance to make sure they’re up to date with the newest developments in software.” The lockdown offers opportunity for trainers to reach a wider audience online, he says.
While Ansible usually visits clients in person, it will now have to investigate online tuition – but with the benefit that international clients will have more frequent access to teaching. “We can’t be with them every day even though we would like to.” Online instruction is perfect for software-related learning, Farmer adds – you have to be screen-based, after all. For any practical instruction, it struggles to deliver.
Ansible already uses VR in simulators “but in combination with a lot of other stimuli to simulate a driving experience,” says Farmer, who questions the availability of hardware, though he does see a place for VR in the future.
If VR hasn’t yet fully arrived it’s because the business model hasn’t yet developed, says VRAI’s O’Connor. “It’s up to the VR companies to make integration [of content] simpler for companies so they don’t need a whole new system to incorporate VR into their own training.”
There are huge economies of scale, he says, particularly relevant in the midst of Covid-19. “The ability to train engineers in large numbers, remotely and in a standardised way, will be invaluable.”
For the IET’s e-classes and free webinars, visit academy.theiet.org and theiet.org/career/courses-training/online-learning
Online learning at Teesside
If engineering is about solving problems, Teesside University believes it’s getting there with remote digital tools and teaching. Engineering and computer science students at the university will soon have the ability to run simulations, create apps, experiment in a VR environment and analyse data – from wherever they are.
The Middlesbrough-based university is one of several UK institutions collaborating with Siemens to introduce a “connected curriculum” – content, tools and teaching including Siemens’ MindSphere cloud platform – that allows students to develop the industrial digital skills that are in demand at work. This project was planned before the outbreak and lockdown but offers a more flexible way of remote working.
“So quickly is industrial IoT (Internet of Things) accelerating we have no choice but to make sure students are enabled,” says Dr David Hughes, enterprise fellow within the Department of Engineering. “The digitalisation of engineering means we don’t have to be anywhere near a piece of equipment that we are controlling. Whole factories now run remotely in the dark. Chemical plants are managed miles off site. This is all about getting students to think about new ways of operating.”
Although Covid-19 has stalled the complete roll-out of the programme, the university plans to press on with the project in summer. Eventually students will have the chance to work side-by-side with small engineering firms to master and apply new digital tools, as small businesses learn through university programmes what industrial digitalisation means for them.
“A cloud platform is key,” says Hughes. “You can tie in legacy software systems and integrate modern, smart processes into it.”
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