Virtual Reality brings realism to training: VRTrain

Last week, an interesting company made an editor briefing to us. The company was Product Animations (http://www.productanimations.com) and they produce virtual reality training for the pharmaceutical and process industries. First, I have to tell you that their product is expensive. The same kind of training can be done with standard videotape or film, for the same, or less money. The imaging is not up to the standards of Pixar, or Industrial Light and Magic, or WETA. Right now, what they have is like the dancing bear... But here's the rub: it works, and it not only works well, but points the way to the training and repair manual of the future. And this is why I encourage you to go to their website and see what they do. Maybe even hire them to do it for you. Why is this little company so important? Why is the idea of digital virtual reality training and manuals so critical? Let me tell you a story. Backalong, when I was a much younger automation professional, I was employed as a sales manager by Texas Nuclear, which is now part of Thermo (...and I forget what they are calling it this month...). I got called to go down and visit the instrumentation supervisor at what is now MeadWestvaco, in West Virginia. The purpose of the visit was to allow him to tell me why they weren't going to buy any more TN products. "Look here, Boyes," he said, flinging open a closet door in the instrument shop. A cascade of manuals and drawings poured out onto the shop floor. "See what I have to contend with?" He dug around for a few minutes, and then emerged, clutching two manuals. I recognized both. "Yes," he said, "here's yours, and here's your competitor's. For a lousy density gauge, your damn manual is four inches thick! Theirs is only a half-inch!" He flopped them down on the workbench. "Sure," he said, "your density gauge is much better, but theirs does almost all the things we need it to do, and it is much simpler to fix. I have a problem with one of your gauges, I give this bible," he hefted our manual,"to the tech and he disappears for three days while he tries to learn how to fix the thing. Your competition may not make such good stuff, but it takes less than half a tech's day to fix nearly anything that could go wrong and re-program it." See, end-users make vendor decisions based on other issues than product cost. Sometimes you have to decide what you can afford in product quality based on how much its total lifecycle cost will be. The fact is, downtime is very expensive. So is training and keeping training current. Unfortunately, there is no line item called "downtime costs reduced by adequate training" according to the FASBE accounting standards. So end users search for ways to reduce the cost of training. One way to do this, of course, is to outsource maintenance to vendors. This is not only expensive, but also the vendors have now been saddled with the same training problem, and they also have to try to find good people to train to begin with. Another way to do it, it seems to me, and it seems to Chip Seabolt and Charles Roberson of Product Animations, is to digitize the instrumentation shop closet. If step by step virtual reality instructions were available everywhere on the plant floor, the amount of time necessary to find and read the manual (in other words, learn or re-learn how to work on the device) is cut tremendously. That is the Product Animations advantage. Where you can make the same training with film or videotape, you can't take that same training out in the field and use it like you can a manual, flipping back and forth to find the right section, and using the virtual reality engine to look at the "drawings" from any angle you need, including backwards. How many times have you tried to figure out how something goes together from a poorly done drawing? Or from an exploded parts drawing that seems to have been "exploded" by a firecracker instead of a CAD suite? Seabolt and Roberson have put some movies of their trainings on their website. Imagine being able to view these with the conventional VR glasses, currently available, or even on the display panel on the PLC or device controller. Who knows, we might be able to stop picking easy-to-repair-but-not-very-good over the-best-there-is, once and for all. Tell me what YOU think! Walt