Virtual training story re-engages with reality

So what was that “revolutionary technology” that Invensys Process Systems (IPS) unveiled at a press conference during its 2009 Process Engineering Forum in Paris at the end of January, only to slap an embargo on the story until Feb. 25 once the presentation was over?

Well, as we intimated in our non-report of the event, it was a further development of the virtual reality training simulator developed by the EC-funded VIRTHUALIS consortium, to which IPS was the leading simulation technology provider and which was given its first public outing at the IPS Business Technologies Conference in Abu Dhabi back in February 2008. For reasons which remain obscure, IPS withdrew from the consortium shortly after that event but continued development of the technology, most recently in association with the French oil company Total, which plans a pioneering installation of the prototype at its Normandy refinery later this month. Depending on the success of that deployment, IPS has scheduled release of the full product for September of this year.

Total Immersion

Neither 3-D modelling of process plants, complete with fully realistic virtual reality “walkthroughs,” nor the use of real-time simulation for operator training are by any means new. What is new, however, is the ability to link the two and, hence, to place individual technicians or operators within the simulated plant environment and to have them interact with the plant in a realistic manner, with the results of their actions reflected in the behavior of the simulated process. The resulting “Immersive Training Simulator” or ITS, says IPS’ Maurizio Rovaglio, extends the conventional training simulator from the control room to the field and, hence, from individual operator training to field-technician and indeed entire-team training. Individuals equipped with suitable head sets are “immersed” in the simulated environment and can, for example, operate valves or start motors using a suitable pointing device, such as a “Wii,” while, in the final production version, a further touch of realism will come from the addition of background noise which will change as the trainee walks through the plant and as equipment starts up and stops.

But ITS doesn’t aim simply to create the most authentic virtual reality representation of an operating plant. By adopting techniques originally pioneered in medicine, it augments the model by the superimposition of additional information on the trainee’s view of the model. That might include, for example, a diagram of the internal layout of a distillation column overlaid on the column itself, a trend of the measured value of an instrument imposed above the instrument itself, or even an ‘X-ray’ view into the bowels of a particular key item of equipment. Such “Augmented Reality,” argues Rovaglio, can increase both process understanding and operational efficiency.

Initially, IPS intends to target two specific areas with the new technology; one, the development, evaluation and validation of maintenance procedures, the other, the improvement of skills in safety-critical tasks. In both cases, the opportunity to train both the field and control room elements of the operational team and to develop effective and efficient communication between the two without needlessly exposing personnel to the hazards inherent in the real plant are seen as offering significant benefits. And in the particular area of safety critical training, ITS offers the additional benefit of being able to practice tasks which are rarely, if ever, performed in reality, but which require correct and rapid response under high-stress conditions when they are.

A Different Way

The starting point for an ITS implementation is the basic 3-D CAD model of the plant, offering the possibility of commencing training on a plant long before start-up. This is coupled with what may be between 200 and 2,000 photographs. According to Rovaglio, the time and cost involved in creating the passive 3-D model has hitherto been one of the barriers to developing such a solution, but, he adds somewhat mysteriously, “We’re approaching it in a different way.” How much a full implementation will cost for a typical plant is not entirely clear. However, IPS was more forthcoming on what it anticipated might be the benefit side of the equation, pointing to figures quoted in the May 2008 issue of Hydrocarbon Processing magazine. These suggested that on a typical 100,000 bpd refinery, virtual plant modelling could lead to annual savings approaching $1.9 million as a result of reductions in abnormal incidents, unplanned maintenance and turnaround downtime, and improved reliability, maintenance work practices and operations department communications.

Whether ITS turns out to be a genuine advance in process industry training practice or merely an intriguing gimmick whose sole purpose is to convince IPS’ critics that it does still invest in technology, only time will tell. One person who is convinced it’s the former is IPS Advanced Applications vice president Tobias Scheele. “It’s a viable technology,” he says “and it’s the starting point for a new means of operation which could lead, in 15 years time, to the virtual control room,” which perhaps explains why, since the Paris preview, it has not only acquired a new name, Immersive Virtual Reality Process, but also a hugely ambitious range of potential applications.

New Clients

According to the press release, it’s now not only “a next-generation human machine interface (HMI) solution that will revolutionize the way engineers and operator trainees see and interact with the plant and the processes they control,” but “will help improve plant safety and security, ensure environmental and regulatory accountability, and increase production and efficiency while controlling feedstock and material costs.” Nor is that the only change in the story in just a month. Back in Paris, we were told of the one prototype implementation at Total, but according to Gary Mintchell, writing on his Feed Forward blog, when he reported just the one, he was swiftly advised that “they actually have four “major global clients” working with the system and expect to expand that to between 15 to 20 clients within a couple of months.”

At this rate, who knows how many they’ll claim to have and what they’ll be able to do come September!

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