Virtual reality used to train next generation of workers

Greg Gazin, Troy Media Corporation
Tags: maintenance and reliability

It was six years ago, over a jug or two of Alexander Keith’s Ale, that business partners Terry Smith and Kevin McNulty started discussing the abysmal state of training in the resources industry.

“These injuries can’t continue,” Smith said.

McNulty, a safety consultant in the oil and gas sector who had spent much of his working life in the mining industry, added that the problems went beyond injuries. He was referring to the 1992 Westray Coal Mine disaster in Plymouth, Nova Scotia, which resulted in the deaths of 26 miners.

“There’s too much pain and suffering,” Smith said. It was then that the two of them decided to build a Holodeck to combat the problem, an idea Smith had been mulling over for a number of years.

Of course, Star Trek fans would immediately recognize the reference to a simulated environment or virtual reality location on a Starship or Starbase used for recreation, training and simulation purposes.

It wasn’t the beer talking, however; simply the realization that something had to be done. Smith felt, “the industry wasn’t doing enough to help people understand how equipment works. Workers don’t understand consequences of (their) actions.”

“We realized we couldn’t build a Holodeck with what we had, but we did start on that long road,” McNulty added.

A long road, indeed – and a dream that seemed light years away for McNulty, now 53, and Smith, 58.

“In the beginning – the truth is, we were subject matter experts – we knew how to convey info and teach in a way that transferred knowledge, but wasn’t that effective,” says McNulty. “We could get (workers) to do the job, but not in terms of regulation and understanding the dangers so they didn’t put themselves at risk and damage equipment.”

He admits that workers were easily trained to do the job, in the basic mechanics, but efficiency was dodgy. To reduce risk on the oil rigs, the workers really needed to understand some of the process engineering theory – “the physics principles like temperature and pressure.”

McNulty cited the example of using a cyclone process to pump a mixture of water, minerals and ore into a hole using a centrifugal force. The possible consequence of not being able to totally visualize the process of what is going on inside could be catastrophic. “Not fully grasping the principles could lead to assumptions that could prove to be harmful both to individuals and equipment.”

Typical training methods tried pictures and drawings and even video to illustrate simple tasks, but they weren’t enough. Workers do not work by themselves but as a team.

“It’s like an assembly line, and there is a sequence of events that needs to occur,” says McNulty. “One person cannot pull lever ‘A’ until another sequence along the critical path was complete. They needed to learn within the context of a crew.”

Other challenges that sometimes hamper effective training include a heavily unionized environment, the maturity level of the individuals and language barriers.

Furthermore, regulatory pressures became more stringent after the Westray mining disaster. There were new regulations around due-diligence and competency-based training. The onus was on employers to demonstrate training delivery with respect to protecting workers, or risk penalty. At the same time, the video game industry was starting to drive the enhancement of video technology, and oil prices were ramping up.

So the timing couldn’t have been better for Smith and McNulty. But the challenge was to convey the benefits to investors to fund the development of their technology. Smith said he shopped it around with limited success.

“It was a challenge to sell vaporware,” he said, referring to a system or software that, while conceptualized, hadn’t yet been developed. They did manage to get into some Calgary boardrooms. “We have this really cool gaming technology,” he would tell the assembled executives. “But we were promptly shown the door.”
When they switched to the simulation angle rather than games, people showed more interest – just not enough to buy in.

The partners needed a cheerleader, and found one in Gordon Vivian, president of Concord Well Servicing. Vivian, a trained pilot, understood flight simulators and how they added to the learning process and how the concept could be applied in the service rig industry.

Concord was able to provide subject matter expertise. Game designer experts and instructional designers were brought on board. They all went through a rigorous task analysis process, identified desired learning outcomes and built a system – a combination of gaming technology and video – that optimized the learning experience. It became apparent that immersive simulation technology would be the ideal solution from an instructional design process.

Finally, in 2007, their vision became a reality. The Service Rig Training system was unveiled at their Coole Immersive offices at Edmonton Research Park in Edmonton, Alberta. It comprises complete modules for junior and senior floor hands, derrick hands and operators. In addition to almost 60 competency-based work methods for each of the four positions, the program includes an illustrated, interactive glossary of more than 700 service rig industry terms.

What’s unique is that their system uses immersive simulation technology, based on an application from Serious Games, which McNulty was introduced to in 2001. Serious Games employs game technology and game design principles for the primary purpose of training, marketing, simulation or education.

“It was something the U.S. military was using to convey learning and knowledge in a way that wasn’t done before,” McNulty said.

Think of it as a game where you are the avatar interacting with the equipment and becoming acquainted with a whole new vocabulary.

“You have a disembodied coach who’s directing you with voice to do a specific task. You follow directions; and as you mouse over a piece of equipment, you learn what it is on your coach’s instructions,” McNulty explained.

To clean the threads on a pipe, you click on the pipe, select the option, and you’ll see your hands wiping the threads. Then you inspect the threads. When you’ve completed the task, you can go on to the next step.

“We use the scaffolding approach, directing you each step of the way,” he added.

This method helps build confidence. Once a task is mastered, you can go into assessment mode, performing the task without the coach. The back end records metrics – completion time, accuracy times – and, after you have achieved a certain level, you’re qualified to go into the field to do hands-on training.

As the training progresses, you become more engaged. While it doesn’t make you an expert, it definitely accelerates learning and time to competency, McNulty said. It will also make you more productive and safer in the field.

Having been involved in industrial training systems, both men agree the use of video gaming technology has taken training to a new level, where no man has gone before. And, it works.

Smith pointed out that the Canadian service rig industry experiences a staggering accident rate of approximately 50 percent for new hires in the first three months of employment. This figure drops to about 5 percent within six months.

“Our system created an unexpected outcome,” McNulty said. "The benefits of the training are evident within two to three weeks."

Using new workers trained on the Service Rig Trainer is like getting a worker with six months experience,” said Shawn Primosch, rig manager at Concord Well Servicing. “(These are the) best prepared new workers ever to set foot on a service rig.”

McNulty and Smith have created their own Holodeck – a technology wonder.

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