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Virtual Reality Comes to the Shop Floor

Harriet Jones


WNPR’s Small Business Project has reported on the high cost of training a skilled workforce to meet the needs of the state and the nation.

This week Harriet Jones visits a small business in Connecticut that’s working on providing a cost-effective and innovative solution to that problem.

I’m in East Hartford at the premises of a company called VRSim, getting a lesson on how to spray paint a vehicle door, from Rebecca McKnight.

“So I’ll do a quick spray for you.”

But we’re not in an auto body facility or on any kind of shop floor – instead we’re standing in an ordinary office, and there’s not a vehicle part nor a drop of paint in sight.

“So I can actually walk around if I want, I can look underneath it, see if I missed any spots – doesn’t look like I did.”

Wearing a virtual reality helmet, and standing in front of a sensor, McKnight is demonstrating VRSim’s latest training tool, Sim Spray. Projected on a screen is the virtual auto part she’s just painted using a handheld spray gun.

“But if you actually look on the screen right now, you can see that beam coming out of the gun, that’s our visual cue. So when it’s green I’m at the proper stand-off distance. When it’s red I’m either too far away or too close..”

This is vocational training in virtual reality. Students mimic the actual hand motions of real painting, and the computer console and their own visual display gives them feedback on just how well they did.

“You do want to be at that 90 degrees, so you’ve got to get the feel of it, the feel of how fast to go, depending on the viscosity of the paint, the proper stand-off distance, all of that makes a difference in the paint job.”

VRSim began life as a company that developed one-off computer simulations for defense contractors including Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney.  In 2004 it began developing a portable system to teach welding in virtual reality, and the company took off in a whole new way. CEO Matthew Wallace.

“We’re a very small company. At the time we started with the original welding simulator we had four people. We have these on every continent except Antarctica.”

VR Sim now employs 16 people, and is looking to grow further. Wallace says the portability and low price of its systems, combined with the fact that there are no materials costs to training this way, makes them very adaptable.

“You see some of our stuff in rural villages in Alaska where they would never set up a welding booth or a spray paint booth but they can load this on a plane, take it there, and give students an initial exposure or experience to see if it’s something they want to do.”

According to Wallace, studies from the University of Iowa have shown that this type of virtual reality learning is highly effective, when combined with hands-on training.

“By mixing the two, the students learned faster, became certified faster, became better skilled and produced better work product because they’re getting a different set of information.”

The system gives very precise data about the student’s performance – for instance it can give an exact reading on the thickness of paint applied across every millimeter of an auto panel. This, says Wallace, is training for the gamer generation.

“I have brilliant employees, they’re very smart, but they’re not traditional readers in the sense. They live in the world of google and look it up and run an app and figure it out. And it’s a very different way of relating to information. So when you look at old welding curriculum like those stacks there of stuff – they’re not going to read a book on how to weld.'

And to prove his point, most of his employees have qualifications related to the gaming industry. Lead designer Zach Lenker came to VRSim after completing a degree in game design.

“The main goal was to go into the video game industry cause, that’s what I do. I play games so I want to make games, but simulation’s really close to that.”

And he has no regrets about his change of direction.

“Here it feels I’ve a little more say early on. It’s kind of cool. A lot of places when you first get in, you’re like at the bottom of the food chain basically and you have to work your way up. But at a small company like this, you’re pretty much right near the top of the food chain when you get here, so it’s pretty cool.”

Once its Sim Spray product gets a full release later this year, VRSim plans to move onto simulating other manufacturing skills, such as CNC machining. With hundreds of thousands of manufacturing positions around the country empty because of a lack of skilled employees, the company sees no end to the applications for its technology.

Harriet Jones is Managing Editor for Connecticut Public Radio, overseeing the coverage of daily stories from our busy newsroom.

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