Trend Report: Virtual Reality

The Virtual Future of the Process Industry

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Stable Internet and Excellent Data Infrastructure Are Indispensable

Before applications of this type can become mainstream, there are a number of hurdles which suppliers and users must overcome. The availability of system integration for smart glasses (e.g. ERP software) is currently limited, says Urban. KSB expert Manske emphasizes that none of this works without a fast, stable local Internet connection. Excellent data infrastructure and accessibility are absolutely vital. Julien Brunel from Linde knows that this is not always the case.

The lack of infrastructure at brownfield sites could be an insurmountable obstacle. Yet operators of these plants have a particular interest in support which can help them bring availability, reliability and safety up to an acceptable level. The initial modernization steps should include state-of-the-art markings and wireless solutions. Stephan Sagebiel, process expert at Phoenix Contact, is convinced that a lot can be done simply by using funds which are already available in the standard maintenance budget. The company, which offers marking and wireless solutions along with automation system components, also provides advice on how to make aging equipment fit for the future. Sagebiel is sure of one thing: "For anyone with a high-performance, full-coverage Wifi and the capability to carry out paper-less control rounds, the next step towards introduction of augmented reality is not far away. Combining this with predictive maintenance provides the basis for outstanding solutions.

Pharmaceutical Packagers Act as VR Training Pioneers

Users of packaging systems, for example in the pharmaceutical industry, are among the process industry pioneers in the use of virtual reality as a training aid. The dynamism of machinery and system suppliers makes this possible. Along with the Optima Group mentioned above, Uhlmann and Bausch+Ströbel are among the companies which offer a broad range of services in addition to their complex filling and packaging lines. AR technology at these companies is still in the development and pilot phase, but VR applications have al-ready reached an advanced stage. Virtual reality based on Powerwalls has been in use for years in engineering and training, reported Tobias Hörner who works as System Product Creation and Application Team Leader in the IT organization at Bausch+Ströbel. Alexander Herrmann, Training Manager at Optima Pharma, pointed out that the existence of a Powerwall is not the end of the story. As with any other form of training, content development is crucial. Also, two hours is generally the limit for wearing 3D glasses. However Herrmann confirms what his competitors are saying: The addition of VR technology creates great possibilities, particularly in cleanroom applications. Instructors cannot bring employees into the cleanroom simply for training purposes.

VR training is a key element of the digitalization strategy at Uhlmann as well. To avoid travel time and expense to train the customer's production employees, the pharmaceutical equipment manufacturer has introduced a virtual training system with VR glasses and controller. In the pilot application, the user is guided through a changeover with the aid of optical instructions.

Immersion into the World of Large Systems on a 3D Display

Large equipment manufacturers such as Linde also use VR as an enhancement to conven-tional operator training. The primary goal is to give future operators the opportunity long before system commissioning to familiarize themselves with their equipment in a safe en-vironment where they can make mistakes without the fear of serious consequences. Some-times more than 100 or more operators and technicians are involved. "Immersion into this world is possible anytime from anywhere in the world, even by more than one person," stressed Brunel. Essentially all that is necessary is VR glasses with a 3D display, two controllers and a high-performance computer. The equipment is so simple to operate that even a layman can go on a tour in the virtual system. In the future, technicians will have the opportunity to move around alongside a digital twin in the system and initiate actions directly in the virtual world, predicts Brunel. This is not all that the technology has to offer for training. Virtual technology could also support instruction at the physical system. Mixed reality could help familiarize new operators with an existing system, for example.

So systems and equipment manufacturers are one step ahead in their ability to offer VR training tools. That is hardly surprising given the fact that few standard digital learning solutions are available which meet the needs of industrial producers. The "industrial specialist developer" Provadis, a subsidiary of Infraserv Höchst which focuses on the chemical, pharmaceutical and biotech industries creates tailored solutions. The toolbox includes system training with a virtual tour on the display in the control room. "Provadis takes a very practical approach. The virtual production system in a PC, tablet or VR glasses makes solutions available where they are actually needed," claimed Ralph Urban. More is involved than simply practicing specific procedures. The goal is understanding, for example why the pressure at a certain point must not exceed a particular level. According to Urban, that type of information was incorporated into the process in the virtual machine or system and it would be highly relevant in the specific context.

Immersive Training Simulation from the Start-Up Community

Another group of suppliers is well positioned to deliver a mix of individuality and digitalization, namely start-ups such as Viscopic which is based in Munich. The three founders were particularly interested in immersive training simulation based on mixed reality, where users plunge deeply into the virtual environment. DB Netz AG was the customer on the first major project. Technicians can now study and explore a railroad track switch in a virtual world. One year after foundation, the start-up can now stand on its own feet financially. Young and creative entrepreneurs could give the process-oriented e-learning community, which includes highly specialized developers as well as equipment and system manufacturers, a real boost – one more reason to put a special focus on this striving scene.

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