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HOW HONEYWELL’S LATEST VR-BASED SIMULATOR BORROWS FROM GAMING TO TRANSFORM INDUSTRIAL TRAINING

How Honeywell’s Latest VR-Based Simulator Borrows From Gaming To Transform Industrial Training

Could the best in modern virtual reality gaming—minus things like zombies, light sabers and black ops weaponry—transform training and development for today’s industrial workforce, including at offshore oil and gas rigs, pulp and paper facilities and pharmaceutical manufacturing plants? 

Honeywell, a Fortune 100 conglomerate that has helped industrial manufacturers improve workforce competencies and capabilities since 2017, is betting on it. Its newly-unveiled Immersive Field Simulator is a virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality-based training tool that incorporates a digital twin, or precise replica of a physical plant that is updated in real-time, to create a collaborative learning environment for plant operators and field technicians. 

Think avatars representing team members and realistic 3D visuals, similar to popular multiplayer games like Call of Duty, that help workers navigate a plant layout or practice complex tasks—turning valves, pressing buttons—before tackling them IRL (in real life). Workers learn to handle customized operating and safety scenarios, wearing the latest in virtual reality headgear while connected to a cloud-hosted, device-agnostic platform, says Vincent Higgins, global director of technology and innovation for Honeywell. 

“It’s similar to a flight simulator, in that the simulation is not in a vacuum, but what you do in the virtual environment has consequences,” he says. “Based on what users do, they could see a fire, a gas leak or an explosion—anything that could happen based on true-life scenarios.”

Even something as simple as maintaining a facility’s air-conditioning unit can be very complex, with hundreds of steps. “It’s not just about creating large environments for training, with multiplayer activity,” Higgins explains. “It may be about working on a particular piece of equipment, practicing how to take it apart and put it back together, so it reduces mistakes and safety concerns in the real world.” 

Productive Training To Transfer Knowledge

With increasingly complex technology and an experienced baby boomer workforce nearing retirement, operators need training and development solutions that efficiently transfer knowledge and accurately depict real-world environments. 

“Loss of knowledge is a real problem,” says Higgins. For example, in the oil and gas industry, close to half of employees are expected to retire in the next five to seven years, he explains. 

COVID-19, which accelerated the move to remote work, has also vastly increased the need for non-classroom training. Meanwhile, workers out in the field need to reduce human error and unplanned downtime. VR technologies, which Higgins points out have markedly improved in realism and ease of use over the past half-decade, can help address all of these challenges: According to a PwC study released last June, employees in VR courses can be trained up to four times faster than in-person or e-learning options and are more than twice as confident in applying their skills after training. 

VR-based training, using technology familiar to digital natives steeped in gaming culture, can also address a generation gap: Younger workers, in particular, are no longer willing to limit their learning to PowerPoint presentations and manuals. 

“They want immersive technology that provides in-the-moment training, when they need it,” says Higgins, adding that digital natives don’t want to write with pencils or fill out spreadsheets in Excel. “It’s about offering training on demand to attract and retain millennial and Gen Z workers,” he says. 

Today’s workers also don’t want to practice in a generic virtual environment, but one that is an exact replica of what they will face in the field. These days, digital twins of everything from small compressors and pumps to entire facilities can quickly be created from three-dimensional CAD models of manufacturer specs. 

Finally, training can longer be one-size-fits-all, where employees learn the same material every three years, take a certification exam and move on. Workers want customized options that address their specific needs and measure how well they retain information. “We built these simulators not just to train, but to discover skills gaps,” he says. “We put someone in a virtual world, throw all sorts of situations at them, and see where they do well and what they need to learn.” 

New Level of Realism, New Opportunities

Going forward, Higgins says VR-driven software for workforce training will continue to evolve and adapt, typically maturing faster than the always-hyped hardware of goggles and controllers. “With 5G coming, there will be a whole new level of realism,” he adds, featuring better resolution, higher frame rate, less latency and ease of use with mobile, so that users can more easily walk around. 

And organizations will continue to discover new ways to use digital twins, which can be used over and over again once they are created. “We’re already seeing new approaches,” says Higgins. “Today it might be used for operations, tomorrow it could be used for safety and reliability, to deal with high winds, for example, or gas leaks.” 

In the new normal of rising expectations for remote work and training, portable VR-driven simulators that can be used with high-end gaming laptops are also coming down the pike. Instead of a virtual world for gaming, a variety of collaborators could join a simulated plant environment or virtual manufacturing facility, while seeing each other as avatars. “It becomes a virtual walk-through used as a collaboration tool,” says Higgins.

There’s no doubt, he adds, that today’s virtual simulation tools, such as Honeywell’s Immersive Field Simulator, offer targeted, measurable, on-demand, skill-based training opportunities, not just entertainment. “The sky’s the limit,” he says. “We’re at the point of real workplace transformation.”

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