Podcast Transcript: Virtual Training Tools for Industrial Plant Maintenance

Image courtesy of Honeywell.

Vincent Higgins, global director of technology and innovation at Honeywell, recently joined our podcast to discuss a new virtual reality-based training tool for plant operators and field technicians. Known as the Immersive Field Simulator, the system combines 3-D technology with a training simulation. In the episode, Higgins offers further insight on the technology, as well as an overview of industry trends and more. See below for a complete transcript.

Source: Honeywell Process Solutions, www.honeywellprocess.com

[This episode was recorded in November 2020.]

[introductory comments]

Ben DuBose: Vincent, good afternoon. How are you?

Vincent Higgins: Good afternoon, Ben. I’m very well, thanks.

BD: Thanks for joining us. What we’re going to be discussing today, Honeywell recently introduced what it’s calling an advanced industrial training solution that combines 3D technology with an operator training simulation. Basically, it’s a tool designed for plant operators and field technicians.

Officially, it’s called the Immersive Field Simulator, and it’s described by Honeywell as a virtual reality and mixed reality-based training tool that incorporates a digital twin of the physical plant to provide targeted and skill-based training for workers. Honeywell notes that many companies are facing higher operational pressures as a result of the pandemic, and the tool also helps to accelerate the training times of any new plant personnel, which can help meet a growing talent shortage within the industrial sector. According to Honeywell, their experience has shown that virtual reality learners are at least four times faster to train than if it were done in a traditional classroom setting. Vincent, to start off our discussion, give us a little bit of background as far as the new simulator, how this came to be, and ultimately what the goal is moving forward.

VH: Certainly. Thanks, Ben. It really comes from our customers’ requests. There are some real challenges in the industry related to a retiring workforce. The ineffectiveness of classroom training, e-learning, in particular, to get folks up and running and ready to do their work on a day-to-day basis. You have the new millennial generation that’s coming in, replacing that retiring generation, and they haven’t seen a lot of the things that happen not every day, maybe every week or every once a year. They’re faced with those without the help of their senior members.

There is truly a skills gap here that needs to be addressed. Some of these newer technologies, particularly virtual reality and digital twins in general, are a great way to get folks up to speed faster. We call it time to competency. How fast can you get a person ready to do a technical task in the field? We’re seeing, like you mentioned, a four times faster rate to get folks up to speed and competent, that they can do their job well, based relative to classroom learning.


BD: What’s the potential relevance of the simulator as it pertains to corrosion? That’s what our audience at NACE is largely focused on. From what I’ve read, with the press release and doing some digging, it sounds like this could really help workers get more familiar with their plants and then, in turn, start to see some of the warning signs to look for as it pertains to corrosion. I guess, first off, is that accurate? Second, can you give some specific examples of how this type of simulator can pay off with corrosion control?

VH: Absolutely. Let’s take a quick look at what the simulator does. There are two parts to the simulator. There’s the 3D digital twin, which is an exact replica of the plant. We take the engineering drawings that were used to actually build the plant. If it’s less than 15 years old, almost every plant today is first designed in a 3D — you might even call it virtual — environment. Then that’s used as the basis for building the facility. Often those 3D engineering drawings, they’re just put on the shelf. We take them off the shelf, and we build and exact replica, down to the nuts and bolts, of the facility, pumps, compressors, heat exchangers, hand railings, where you can walk, where you can’t walk.

There’s also a second digital twin, which is the process digital twin, that’s working in the back end. That connects temperatures, pressures, flows to that other digital twin, which is the 3D model. So when you turn a valve in the virtual world, you're actually — the simulator responds to that and adjusts the temperature, the flow, the pressure accordingly across the entire plant. Essentially, you're getting as close as you can get to a real-life experience because you have these two digital twins, one physical in a 3D virtual world and the other mathematical, working together to give you a very realistic experience

This brings you to corrosion. Using both of those digital twins together and setting up some specific scenarios, you can detect and respond to — according to the standard operating procedures — to deal, first of all, detect corrosion. You can use, essentially, thermal cameras in the virtual world to detect corrosion or through visual inspection. You can take corrective actions. You can do measurements, corrosion measurements, using tools that can be developed in the virtual world. The idea here is that, unlike classroom learning and e-learning, this is as real as it gets without actually being in the plant, and the retention rates that we’re seeing go from 20–30% from technical retention to 70–80% for hands-on learning in the virtual environment.

What’s nice about this digital twin of the physical plant is you can do many things that you could never do in an operating plant. There’s a lot of different safety procedures. You can create a gas leak in a virtual world. You can run people to a muster station. You can do fire extinguisher training. You can set a gas leak off. There’s pretty much anything you can do in the virtual world, and train people in less frequent but critical tasks, many of which could be related to corrosion.


BD: What type of feedback have you heard from some of the early users of this system? I know you mentioned the data with regard to how much more quickly it can train workers. But in terms of concrete examples, if you will, of how workers are responding to this, the type of things they’re saying in terms of how easy or difficult it is to use, etc., what type of feedback have you heard from the early users of this system?

VH: A couple of things. First of all, the folks that are in the virtual world are the same people that are physically in the plant day to day, so they know every corner. They know what the plant looks and feels like. The first response we’ve gotten from customers is, “It is exactly what I see and feel in the real world, but it’s in a safe place in a virtual environment.” The only difference being that it’s maybe the pipes aren’t as dirty or it doesn’t have all the sights and sounds, but it does have 3D sound and it has true stereoscopic visuals. It is quite close to the real thing.

Secondly, the feedback we’re getting is the level of engagement of those that are being trained. There is no distraction. You're wearing a VR headset that you can’t be texting. You can’t be looking at other things like in e-learning or classroom learning. You are fully engaged in that world. Essentially, because you have the sight and the sound, it’s codifying in your mind what you would expect to find in the real world, so that’s why what we’re seeing is getting that acceleration of retention of key tasks.

What you can do in a virtual environment, you can do the same task just before you go out and do it in the real world. If you're doing a maintenance task which is very complex, like removing the bundle from a large compressor, and there’s 120 steps you have to do over a two-day period, you could walk through that even in an accelerated fashion, hands-on, in a virtual environment, so when you go out and do it in the real world, you do it faster, better, and with less mistakes. This idea of muscle memory and having the ability to try things out, and even make mistakes and learn from those mistakes in the virtual world, benefit you almost immediately when you go out into the real world and have to deal with similar issues.

Because it’s portable, all you need is a gaming laptop and a VR headset. You can carry it around with you. You could do it in a classroom, you could do it at home, you could do it in your hotel room if you have to travel, and get trained up on a specific series of tasks or situations just before ou go in and do it in the real world. There’s that proximity of training from a timing perspective to the actual action of doing the work. And there’s also the realism and how it grabs your attention as you're doing the training in the virtual world.



BD: One of the other things that jumps out to me about this system, at least in 2020, is that it potentially makes life a little bit easier for companies during COVID-19, because instead of having to jam workers into a traditional classroom model, they’re able to do this type of training — we talked earlier about it being more efficient, but because they’re able to do it in a virtual setting, then all of a sudden you're not making the same logistic requests, which for 2020 and at least a portion of 2021 is a pretty big deal. Is that something that you’ve heard from your clients?

VH: Absolutely. Our internal and external classroom training obviously has gone down for our customers. The attention and the interest in these sorts of technologies has increased exponentially, to be honest, because it is — you can do the training anywhere, and the costs, you pretty much eliminate the costs of travel. It is portable and it is quite effective. We don’t see this going away. This, in combination with e-learning — so we’re working on some things around how you deliver this in an e-learning module as well on a 2D screen. It’s not quite as immersive as you would do if you put on the headset and you're in that virtual world, but you can even deliver e-learning with a skills-based component, which is a lot more hands-on than just the questions and answers and videos that you see in e-learning.

So there’s different ways of delivering this platform. It’s agnostic to the hardware that accompanies it. It doesn’t have to be fully immersive. Not everyone is completely comfortable with putting on and losing yourself in a virtual world. The younger generation grabs onto it quite easily. But there are other modalities to deliver this type of training. We actually have a variety of ways in which we can deliver the experience without having to be a fully immersive one, which is truly 3D. Actually, you can reach your hand out and it almost feels like you can touch the handrail or the pump that you're working with without actually having it there in front of you.


BD: You mentioned earlier the skilled labor shortage that, definitely with regard to corrosion control or broader maintenance, I think we all know, is an issue. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more, what the connection with this type of technology is to the broader development of the maintenance industry’s workforce? Make the connection, if you could, between this type of system and why it potentially boosts the efficiency of the workforce that’s coming in for the next generation.

VH: There’s really two things. There’s the recruitment side of things. Think about engineers choosing the engineering career or a career similar to that, or a maintenance career, where you would go, leave your iPad and your cell phone behind and pick up a clipboard and a piece of paper, and you're doing the work that way. The digital native, which is pretty much the Millennial generation and the Gen-Z, are just entering the workforce now. They’re digital natives. They want to use the tools that they know they can be successful with. These sorts of tools are just a perfect fit for their comfort zone. Essentially, if you were to choose an industry, which is quite old school, but with brand-new tools, the chances of them coming on board are, I think, stronger. It’s all about generating the next generation of worker in the industry. These are points that help boost that.

Secondly, how quickly. I mentioned earlier about time to competency. How quickly can we get folks truly competent and confident to do the work at hand? Unfortunately, it takes a long time. There are a lot of things you have to go through to be self-sufficient in the field. The studies that we’ve seen, external studies and the ones we’re doing internally with our customers, are showing that the metrics around virtual reality training are getting people up to speed so much faster than the old way, which is mostly classroom based, that we have more people in the workforce, better prepared, more confident people. The companies that are investing in this, we hear from the workers, they feel that the companies have their back, that they are investing in the people, which I think is really important.

One of the talks I often give is about the internet of things. Internet of things, as you know, is around using technologies to transform the way work is done. I truly believe that the individual, the person is at the core of the internet of things. Those folks — so we’ll never automate things completely. No matter how hard we try, the individual will be at the center of key decisions. So the question is, automate what you can, and then provide the support, the technology support so that they make better decisions. The point is here, if you invest in these technologies, you’ll get more people coming on board, better prepared, and they’ll truly feel that they’re investing in their futures.


BD: Let’s talk a little more broadly, because obviously Honeywell has a number of industrial clients. What types of things are you hearing from them in late 2020? I’m curious, number one, how many of them are faring business-wise, during COVID, during all the unique market forces of this year. Clearly, there’s an election season going on as well. In terms of Honeywell’s role as a technology provider, what are some of the trends, I suppose, of the things that they’re asking for moving forward?

VH: They’re looking for more digital tools. It’s all about digital transformation. Honeywell is taking the lead in many of the industry verticals around digital transformation. We are, first of all, transforming digitally ourselves. I’ve seen, over the last years, how many new tools and approaches that are digital that a big company like Honeywell, which is a major manufacturer globally, how we are transforming internally with digital tools.

Many of our customers are asking us, How do we — questions around the pandemic have really brought to the forefront the need to support the worker. Support the worker when there’s a reduced number of people allowed on site. When the experts are not allowed to fly in to do the specialized work. When the maintenance people are not allowed on site, so you need to kind of put on more hats. The people that are core to the operations have to wear more hats, so they need things like digital workflow, and they need things like virtual reality training, and they need to be able to call an expert from a distance and share their view through a video chat capability.

We’ve developed a lot of these digital tools for our customers, even to the extent where you can control and monitor a plant from a distance. It’s not that the customer is removing all the people. But when you have a reduced staff, sometimes you have to take on more things from a distance to have that control from a remote location and centralize operations. Truly, the pandemic has created and opened people’s eyes to the need, and has accelerated it, the need to digitally transform. I think that’s the single biggest thing we’re seeing out of the last six months, is the strong attention to truly digital transform and not just to talk about it.


BD: That makes a lot of sense. Before we sign off, Vincent, for any of our listeners that want more information or resources from Honeywell, what are some of the ways that they can reach out to you guys or access further details about the simulator or anything else that you all offer? Basically, feel free to plug whatever you like from Honeywell’s perspective.

VH: Certainly. www.honeywellprocess.com is our automation and control systems division of Honeywell, where all of our portfolio sits that I’m involved in, including virtual reality and some of these digital tools. I would certainly go there or just search the web for that information. There’s a lot on the web about the products that are being developed and will continue to be developed. That’s probably the best place to go.

BD: Sounds great.