As immersive reality technologies continue to grow in scope and scale, more industrial applications are being developed to solve longstanding issues. Augmented, mixed, and virtual reality technologies represent a path forward that could improve most aspects of plant planning, personnel training and maintenance.
Spanning the gap between digital and physical spaces, immersion technology has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Composed primarily of augmented reality and virtual reality, it seeks to supplement or wholly create an environment by superimposing data and visuals for a variety of applications. Though it has roots in the entertainment industry, immersion technology holds infinite potential for industrial applications, including maintenance and training functions.
Virtual reality (VR), or the building of a full, immersive digital environment, has been around longer than most people realize. By creating or recreating a space, virtual reality allows users to explore an otherwise hard or impossible to experience scenario. It has been most commonly used for situations such as flight simulation, but has been more recently implemented by the US Navy to train crew on aircraft carriers.
Augmented reality (AR) takes a different approach to immersing its users; sometimes called mixed reality, it overlays images and information onto the real world environment. Though augmented reality is being implemented across multiple industries, most people are familiar with augmented reality either through the Pokémon Go or Snapchat apps, which use augmented reality to overlay digital projections on real-time images.
Immersion technology also uses a wide range of access devices, ranging from the classic VR headset or goggles to laptops, phones, iPads and other technologies. Most viewing technology is lightweight, portable and fairly inexpensive in comparison to other technologies, making it easy and affordable to access and utilize.
BETTER TRAINING IN LESS TIME
Beyond being affordable, AR and VR show an enormous potential for growth. Immersive technology reduces the time needed for training while also making training easier to understand through visual, interactive examples. This ease of training then results in reduced potential for human performance errors and lower exposure to hazards due to the offsite nature of the technology. Even well after training, AR and VR can improve relationships between engineering and maintenance, aiding in trouble shooting, safety briefings and facilities maintenance.
Though the power industry tends to be slow to implement change, users have begun to take notice of the potential of AR and VR systems. Architecture/engineering/construction companies and equipment manufacturers have begun to implement 3D scans of end user areas to familiarize their users with the spaces; likewise, utilities have begun to implement VR training. Though some have taken to fully modeling 3D environments for VR purposes, other parts of the industry have taken to varying levels of immersion.
Using mixed reality technology, Matterport has created new facilities management solutions. The Matterport platform enables users to create cloud-based 3D and virtual reality models of real-world spaces. By using 3D scans and photos of a facility, Matterport generates a fully 3D interactive version of the site. Visual immersion is further supplemented by the ability to measure scanned spaces and add tags, allowing users to label sections with relevant information, links to documents and video. This technology enables users to not only tour remote facilities or areas, but also to set up emergency response planning, train people on layout and even generate a layout floor plan.
THE IMMERSION ADVANTAGE
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has shown interest in VR training, developing a virtual training environment for Terry turbine maintenance; a function that was previously hard to train for due to the difficulty and infrequency of its occurrence. Using this fully virtual experience, the training process now takes significantly less time to complete and can be begun at any point in the process to provide a helpful refresher even for veteran personnel. The portability of the training is also super convenient; instead of having to fly trainees out to the training turbine or transport the turbine to the training facility, all that is needed is a clear space and the VR equipment, which is light and relatively inexpensive.
Likewise, Howden North America has developed Uptime, an augmented reality environment in which to create work instructions and provide customers with self-service options. Using a digital twins of products, Uptime can show the functions and troubleshooting of a piece of equipment, making training , interfacing with the equipment and maintenance easier and more efficient. With technology like Uptime, remote tech support problem diagnosis becomes a simple process of sharing visual data, rather than asking a lengthy series of questions.
As seen from these examples, immersive augmented reality and virtual reality technologies are effective, simple and easy to use. They reduce costs for and improve the overall user experience of troubleshooting, training and maintenance. The cost reductions and productivity increases from immersion technology provide companies with a competitive advantage in the global economy, while also maintaining good customer relations.