All eyes on the future

Virtual reality: Thanks to interactive, immersive 3D technology from Linde, operators can familiarise themselves – from anywhere in the world – with a new plant before it even goes on stream. This new training format opens up interesting new opportunities for the established plant engineering business.

Around 8,000 kilometres to the east of Moscow in the Siberian wilderness, Linde is con- structing one of the world’s largest natural gas processing plants (GPP). Amur GPP spans 800 hectares, equivalent to around 1,120 football pitches. When it is fully up and running, it will employ some 200 operators tasked with managing the plant and controlling all of its processes. The challenge lies in preparing the team up front for the huge range of tasks they will need to master. Say, for example, that a specific valve needs to be opened by hand for the controlled release of excess pressure. In order to reach the component deep inside the plant, a technician has to climb steps, walk along passageways, turn to the right or left several times, duck under pipes, locate the valve and open it – which is like turning a heavy steering wheel.

The training scenario may look real to the technician but it is, in fact, only an illusion as Amur GPP does not yet exist – it is currently being built. The mechanic is not walking along the concrete floor of the plant, but is moving around a training room located thousands of kilometres and several time zones away. A virtual reality (VR) headset has transported the trainees to their future place of work.

Virtual Reality training with VR glasses. This enables operators to train in future plants – before they have even been constructed. Image taken for the Linde Annual Report 2017.
Linde’s “plant in a box” contains everything an operator needs to train on a future plant: laptop, controller, VR headset and sensors.
Portrait of Nanna Thiele, Programme Manager Digitalisation, Linde Munich. Image taken for the Linde Annual Report 2017.
Virtual reality allows Linde to train operators in plants that have not yet been completed, says Nanna Thiele, programme manager digitalization

Turning gas plants into explorable 3D worlds

Engineers use computer-aided design (CAD) tools to build gas processing plants on their screen. Linde then works with VR specialists to turn this raw design data into explorable 3D worlds. Long before the plant is completed, operators equipped with VR headsets can then familiarise themselves with the plant’s inner workings and process flows, and thus prepare for unusual or irregular situations. “They are able to practise in a virtual version of their future working world,” enthuses Nanna Thiele, Programme Manager Digitalisation. Her burning goal is to fast-track this virtual reality tool – piloted in Linde’s Digital Accelerator – into a scalable, fully featured digital service capable of offering customers time, efficiency and financial gains.

Traditional classroom training is passé

Up to now, operator training has taken place in physical classrooms; something Benjamin Krebs, System and Start-up Engineer, describes as “your typical instructor-led classroom set- ting”. As the person responsible for operator training, he has held a large number of these events over the years. Nevertheless, he was quick to recognise the potential of VR technology. Previously, operators could only start to put theory into practice once the plant had been constructed. “Now, thanks to VR, we pull the training process forward,” explains Thiele. This means that the operating crew has already been trained by the time Linde hands the plant over to the customer, and the customer can fast-track the live date. VR has the potential to fundamentally change the way training is delivered. Operators can use the VR training platform to familiarise themselves with the plant and rehearse various scenarios they may encounter on the job. What is more, they can do this from anywhere in the world. “This means a big reduction in air miles as the trainer doesn’t need to travel to the classroom and operators don’t have to travel to the plant before they are needed,” adds Thiele. She is working on a digital licensing model for the service similar to that of the software industry, where users can simply buy rights of use online. All of the required hardware – laptop, VR headset and controller – can be packed in a specially adapted hard-shell case and shipped to any corner of the world. “We call it our plant in a box,” says Thiele. Looking beyond the logistical benefits, studies indicate that VR technology makes the learning process 15 times more effective than classroom-based training, with learning curves accelerating by 33 percent. The power of immersion is what gives VR its edge – the feeling of actually exploring the plant and engaging with the surroundings combine to outperform conventional learning methods. The VR experience blends visualisation, spatial orientation and interaction with objects. It helps the participants find their bearings more quickly, for example, so they are less likely to go wrong later. The on-site team is thus ready to spring into action much earlier and will be able to work in a more efficient, targeted way. “It’s a bit like learning to ride a bike,” maintains Thiele. “Through practice and repetition, a skill becomes hard-wired. It’s not something you easily forget.”

Gaming spirit

Krebs is in charge of developing the VR training scenarios. He has borrowed from the world of computer gaming to add an all-important reward component, so bonus points are awarded to players who fix problems faster than their colleagues. “The gaming-inspired incentive element has really worked,” according to Krebs. “Everyone wants to speed up and improve their performance,” adds Thiele. “This provides great motivation.” The next stage of development could see several operators rehearsing a training scenario and tackling challenges together. Another plus is that all tasks and activities are measurable. “We can analyse with precision what an operator does on the VR platform, what steps they execute and whether they are improving,” says Krebs.

Engineers lay digital foundation

Humans are still needed to create a realistic VR environment based on plant data. VR soft- ware is not currently able to automatically render objects like pipes with the proper surface (texture), so VR designers have to intervene to make sure that everything looks true to life. Thiele and her team are working to fix this by asking the CAD engineers to add digital tags to the plant design data from the outset. These virtual tags will contain metadata specifying details like colour and function. “In the future, we will be able to create VR environments at the click of a button,” she affirms. A pilot project has inspired a scalable, full-featured service thanks to the team led by Thiele and Krebs. It shows that Linde does not regard digitalisation as an end in itself, but rather as a catalyst to drive selective modifications to existing processes. Virtual reality is part of the smart revolution and is set to have a lasting impact. Linde’s VR application bolsters the natural gas plant business, reinforces Linde’s role as a trusted partner and strengthens customer ties. In a nutshell, virtual reality technology opens up interesting new opportunities for plant projects, customer collaboration and the next generation of services.