Virtual Reality: A tangible potential

VR lets Linde’s clients explore the world’s largest industrial gas processing plants long before they are built – causing vertigo even on trusted office floors.

Man with virtual reality glasses, watching the key visual for Gastech 2017. The picture was produced to promote the VR tour on the trade fair Gastech 2017.
A glimpse into the future of plant design

“Many a visitor here has had a sudden rush of vertigo, desperately reaching out for a hand rail that is only virtual,” says Nanna Thiele, Linde’s program manager for digitalisation. This is hardly surprising as the sight from the top of a 75-metre-high coldbox, a crucial part of gas processing plants, can be awe-inspiring. 

But in this case, the view from the coldbox is only an illusion, albeit a perfect one. Looking through virtual reality glasses, Linde’s clients can examine their future plant during its construction phase. In the past, these so-called design reviews took place via a projector and overhead slides. With virtual reality, they will become a powerful first-hand experience. 

The VR project started out at the Linde campus in Pullach, Germany. “We always focus on one question in particular: how can we use the data Linde owns to help our clients and at the same time, develop new business opportunities,” says Philip Kamires, head of digitalisation at Linde. 

The Digital Base Camp is the laboratory where Linde aims to foresee the future. Having assessed a business idea’s viability and its potential to be scaled up, Karmires and his crew build a prototype. “Ideas are always in the interest of enhancing our clients’ and our own business,” says Mathias Mostertz, senior business development manager. This is precisely the case with VR.

A plant in a box

As planning and building gas facilities is a digital process from the start, “large amounts of data are generated even before the first bricks are laid, and that’s just in the engineering phase,” Mostertz recalls. “Using a gaming software, we built a three-dimensional world based on the data gathered during the planning process.” This world is the basis for the VR headset. It allows clients to walk through a plant that hasn’t been built yet, inspecting its pipes, compressors and valves in detail. 

By now, virtual reality has almost become a daily routine for Nanna Thiele. The VR headset, complete with controller and laptop, fits into a suitcase a little bigger than a piece of hand luggage. “We call this our plant in a box,” she says. Just like that, the equipment can be moved anywhere in the world.

Using a gaming software, we built a three-dimensional world based on the data gathered during the planning process.

From miniature models to lifelike environments 

It wasn’t always like this. In a pre-VR era, clients used to approve plant designs based on 1:50 scale models, handcrafted by Linde’s pattern making department. Split up into partitions, each covering two square metres and safely stored in Plexiglas boxes, the replicas were loaded onto lorries and shipped to clients. When joined together, they would become walkable sites the size of a tennis court. Parts of these patterns can still be viewed at Linde’s tradition-steeped corporate archive – seven floors below the Digital Base Camp. 

While humans must have felt like giants passing through those miniature model gas facilities, with VR goggles, it’s the other way around: clients gain a compelling view of a plant’s real-world dimensions. VR makes a facility’s complexity, size and layout truly tangible – far more than models or flat paper ever could. 

Training day

It’s called virtual reality, but its potential is very real – and Linde is determined to leverage it. Linde Engineering’s Nanna Thiele is even working to enable clients to train staff in the operation and maintenance of future plants. For clients, efficiently instructing personnel early on and from virtually everywhere is a key advantage: It saves time and costs. For Linde, in return, it’s a key opportunity: an opportunity to sell and capitalise on VR as a digital service, turning it from an optional extra to a true business case.