To the benefit of employers and employees alike, virtual reality is making training and development more efficient, more engaging and more effective.
A virtual reality headset can transport human beings. They can walk on the moon, go deep-sea diving, or visit a faraway place or a faraway time.
One of the most transformative things people can do with a VR headset, however, is learn a new skill with which to do their job and advance their career.
Think about it. VR training has the power to unlock new opportunities that permanently change the quality and trajectory of one’s life
That’s especially true in industrial settings. With automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning accelerating at breakneck speeds, industrial workers find themselves at a crossroads. Either they surrender their jobs to technology, or they leverage said technology to make themselves more valuable, more productive and more relevant.
VR gives them the means to choose the latter, suggests a 2020 study by PwC, which compared the performance of employees who participated in the same training course but in different modalities: classroom, e-learning and VR. Compared to classroom students and e-learners, it found, VR learners learned faster, were more focused, were more emotionally connected to the course content and were more confident in applying the skills they learned after training.
Therein lies the promise of VR in the industrial workplace: By replacing analog training with VR, organizations can create a workforce that is not only more skillful and more knowledgeable, but also more productive, more engaged and, ultimately, more satisfied.
That’s the destination. To get there, organizations must ask not merely what virtual reality can do — i.e., what cool experiences it can create — but also what it can achieve: i.e., what business problems it can solve. Here are three of the most promising use cases for VR in training:
1. Human Resources
A 2018 study by Korn Ferry, which found that by 2030, there will be a global talent shortage of more than 85 million people.
In some cases, the problem is lack of bodies — negative population growth means there aren’t enough workers in the workforce. In others, it’s lack of skills.
The latter is particularly acute in industrial settings. A 2018 study of the manufacturing sector by Deloitte found a skills gap that could leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled in the next decade.
One explanation for the skills gap is the rate at which veteran workers are retiring from the industrial workforce. Because young workers are not willing to take their place, they’re taking their knowledge and experience with them.
VR can help at both ends. First, it can attract Generation Z. Because they’re digital natives, Gen Z workers expect to use the same digital tools at work that they use at home. Employers that embrace VR for training scratch that itch and are therefore more appealing. In 2020, Honeywell introduced its Immersive Field Simulator, a VR-based training tool that provides in industrial settings like factories and oil refineries the same collaborative, immersive 3D experiences and environments that young people enjoy in multiplayer games like Call of Duty. By gamifying training, work that was presumed to be dull suddenly becomes interesting, engaging and fun.
At the same time, VR offers a means by which to effectively capture, catalog and transfer retiring workers’ knowledge. Ask yourself, which is more effective: Learning to do a job by reading a static document that was written by a previous employee, or learning to do a job from a mentor who has done that job for years and can show you in real time how to do it? Using VR, the latter is possible even if experienced employees are no longer present to be mentors.
Key to the idea of VR-based training are digital twins: exact digital replicas of physical places and things. At their best, these replicas don’t just look like the real world; thanks to sophisticated mathematical models that incorporate historical and even real-time data — variables like temperature, pressure and flow, for example — they function like the real world, too. If you push a button on an assembly line in a digital twin, the button will look like the real button on the real assembly line, will be located in the exact same place and will produce the exact same result. Because you’ve pressed it in a digital world, however, the button has only hypothetical instead of actual consequences for the business.
Digital twins have myriad use cases. In industrial workplaces, one of the most valuable is safety. Using Honeywell’s Immersive Field Simulator, for example, employees in a nuclear power plant or on an offshore natural gas rig can precisely simulate accidents and disasters without actually endangering their colleagues, the public or the environment.
What’s more, they can do so again and again, building the repetitive experience and muscle memory that will help them respond quickly and effectively in the event of an actual emergency. Hopefully, even the most tenured employees have never experienced a crisis; with VR, however, employees at all levels can engage in dress rehearsals that prepare them for what crises look like and what their roles and responsibilities will be when responding to them.
In the same way that they can facilitate safety, VR and digital twins can facilitate accuracy and efficiency, which in the context of operations can reduce costs and increase quality.
Imagine, for example, a maintenance technician who works in a factory that processes refrigerated foods. In an environment like that, cold storage is critical. If HVAC or refrigeration equipment breaks, the technician must be able to repair it quickly and correctly, knowing that every minute of downtime creates additional waste and loss of revenue. Using a solution like Honeywell’s Immersive Field Simulator, the technician can practice complex repairs without decommissioning actual equipment. When actual instead of virtual equipment breaks, he or she subsequently can act with maximum speed and efficacy. After all, practice really does make perfect.
What’s true for repairs also is true for assembly. In the case of aviation and aerospace, workers must correctly assemble and install thousands of intricate — and expensive — components, any one of which could affect the cost and performance of an airplane or spacecraft. Using VR, the workers in charge of executing engineers’ designs can ingest parts and processes so that they know them intimately before production begins. To the delight of manufacturers and their customers, the result is fewer delays, fewer cost overruns and, ultimately, an optimized asset that performs to its full potential.
Virtual is Valuable …
More and better workers. Safer workplaces. Minimal waste and maximal performance. These are the promises of virtual reality for industrial training and development. And they’re just the beginning. Thanks to 5G connectivity and next-generation reality capture, VR is only going to become more realistic, more portable and more powerful — for employers and employees.