industrial gaming environments
In addition to mimicking the exact layout of a facility, industrial gaming environments can even reflect different environment conditions (daytime, night-time, fog/smoke etc.) for maximum realism

Video game technology is transforming operator training in the power industries, writes Dave Coppin of AVEVA

Thanks to advances in gaming technology, and with detailed 3D modelling at the core, it has become practical, affordable and quick to create a fully navigable, ‘hyper-real’ equivalent of a power plant facility, whether already operational or yet to be constructed.

Whilst virtual reality as a concept within the power sector has existed for some time, this is the first time that this virtual reality is imbued with full in-world functionality to allow for the simulation of power operations and maintenance procedure planning and training.

The change is partly due to the fact that the sophisticated graphics and complex physics engines that lend the games their realism can now run on entry-level hardware and multiple platforms.

Meanwhile, increased internet speeds and bandwidth have also seen massive multi-player online games (MMOG) explode in numbers, with every player’s actions updating in real time worldwide. The market conditions are right for a new genre to emerge: industrial gaming.

This might sound interesting, but what are the business justifications for the creation of an industrial ‘virtual world’ for the power market? Why would an owner-operator want to invest in industrial gaming? At the lowest level, the objectives of gaming for entertainment and those of industrial gaming are relatively similar: practice makes perfect.

Dr Michael Platt, a specialist in human behaviour at Lockheed Martin, has said that we should not train people until they get it right, we need to train people until they don’t get it wrong. Similarly, gamers are only allowed to progress when they no longer make errors, trying again and again until they get it right – and if they don’t get it right, their characters disintegrate.

Central to the application of industrial gaming for the power sector is a desire to create and maintain skills and understanding in all site personnel through familiarization and repeated practice. Human error is widely recognized as the number one cause of safety incidents and so, whilst the enhanced skills gained through repeated practice could aid productivity, they could also serve to eradicate human error from operations.

Many of the recent investigations into incidents in our industry have highlighted a level of commonality as to probable causes. These include:

  • limited awareness of operating procedures;
  • improper identification of safety hazards and hazardous processes;
  • inadequate inspection; and
  • inadequately trained workers.

Using an immersive environment built from the 3D model of the asset, employees can help resolve the issues outlined above.

The ability not just to understand information, but also to retain it, is critical to ensuring safety in high-risk environments, and a ‘trial-and-error’ approach to learning significantly improves retention.

It utilises self-educating techniques where individuals evaluate the feedback resulting from actions to improve performance and overall safety.

In contrast, a ‘trial-and-error’ approach in a live environment would have the opposite effect. It can be costly, disruptive to production and potentially hazardous to the individual or the facility – the consequences of a mistake might be catastrophic. Though mistakes in any plant are grave, safety concern around nuclear power is the most obvious example. Germany’s high profile exit from the world of nuclear power post-Fukushima – despite not being situated on a fault line that would cause problems comparable to those of Japan – highlights the huge amount of pressure these plants face to maintain immaculate health and safety records.

The issue of safety will only come under even more pressure as many countries continue to expand their nuclear footprint.

For example, despite the likelihood that combined-cycle gas power plants may become more common in the US thanks to the advent of shale gas, the demand for enriched uranium to feed its nuclear power plants is estimated to increase from the current 14 million separative work units to 15–16 million by 2025.

In this context, the advantages offered by simulation are more pertinent than ever.

As a proactive approach to crisis avoidance and/or mitigation, industrial gaming helps operators imagine and model the worst, and their time-critical responses to the worst, for full preparedness for every significant eventuality.

“Never has the need for improved training in all aspects of power operations been more important. There is a lack of experienced engineers and with more complex and automated assets this introduces new risks into safe and effective operations,” says Derek Middlemas, chief operating officer and head of enterprise solutions at AVEVA.

“This is where virtual reality comes in. Using industrial 3D gaming technology to supplement physical on-the-job training we can greatly increase operator effectiveness at zero risk and optimise the cost of training.”

In a report entitled ‘Why Simulation Games Work’, authors Hoftstede, de Caluwe and Peters note that in many cases industrial gaming can help make the information more relevant and easier to understand, which is critical for HSE and high-risk activity training. But this perspective is not new; the power industry is playing catch-up. The development of flight simulators has contributed enormously to improving air safety by enabling crew to learn and practise their skills in perfect safety.

Zero incident paradigm

O&M and Training departments
The usability and affordability of the technology means that specific application of visualisation technology to the power industry is limited only by the imagination of O&M and Training departments

Middlemas says: “Like flight simulators, virtual reality will only be useful if it accurately mirrors the real life conditions of the asset in which the employee is going to be operating.

“AVEVA’s Activity Visualisation Platform simulations are created directly from the asset’s 3D Digital Information Hub, which allows employees to run through routine inspections right through to complex maintenance decisions in an immersive 3D environment.

“Whilst only a small percentage of plants in the industry have fully leveraged the opportunities offered by a fully up to date 3D digital asset, the impact of AVEVA AVP is such that for very larger and costly operations – such as replacing the steam generators of a nuclear power plant – it may actually make sense to create a model of the relevant parts just for this purpose. AVEVA AVP offers a new way to test and consolidate learning before the employee is introduced into the much higher risk environment.”

Within a virtual reality environment, trainees can be provided with full on-screen details to follow when introduced to the training programme, and the advice can then be steadily reduced – at the employee’s own pace – to hints, and finally, to ‘no-help’ test modes to ensure complete comprehension of a process.

While advanced visual simulation technology enhances data assimilation, AVEVA AVP also supports this process with in-app web browser access. The functionality of the web browser is twofold: firstly, the in-app web browser allows access to reference data so that, when trainees require an extra piece of information, they do not need to leave the application in order to access it. For example, they could view PDF data sheets from an OEM’s website.

The second key advantage lies in the possibilities posed by a constantly-updating live stream of data. Real-time SCADA information, shown in the game, could allow the gamer to respond to the status of the physical plant itself. The presence of the web browser adds another potential layer of engagement for users of the software, and another way of enhancing safety through operator familiarity.

The forthcoming ISO 55000 regulations will ensure that safety training is a central RAGAGEP (Recognised And Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practice) pillar of operational readiness and offers further incentive to invest in more effective teaching and learning techniques.

ISO 55000 defines an ‘integrated asset management’ solution as being comprised of an asset and maintenance management system, an underlying operational asset information backbone, and crucially, a formal training and competency development system. Industrial gaming can play a key supporting role for owner operators aiming to meet these ISO standards.

In addition, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in its regulation OSHA 1910.119(g)(1) indicates that topics covered by training should, as a minimum, include the following:

  • lock-out/tag-out;
  • hot work;
  • line and equipment opening;
  • confined space entry;
  • emergency response; and
  • operating procedures.

AVEVA AVP offers a world that is sufficiently developed and realistic to include all of the above key areas of operational expertise that need to be fostered as stipulated by OSHA.

Economic and business cases

From an economic perspective, the key economic benefit of industrial gaming is the ability to keep scheduled outage to a minimum. With staff turnover at individual facilities increasing worldwide, and with increasingly high levels of automation reducing the overall size of teams, the presence of multiple engineers per team that have never performed a specific procedure is becoming more common.

Inexperience will continue to be the power industry’s number one human resource challenge (linked in no small part to the problem of the mass retirement of the ‘Baby Boomers’).

To protect the economics of the plant, engineers need to be able to perform necessary maintenance quickly and safely, regardless of how many times the individual engineer has performed that specific procedure.

Another advantage of the industrial gaming app technology is that the simulation will allow owner operators to experiment within the app to see whether alternative operating procedures are more effective. It would also allow for a faster response during unplanned downtime because the team will have been able to have rehearsed each particular scenario within the virtual reality app environment before its occurrence.

Industrial gaming not only brings value to already established facilities, however; facilities currently being built, of which there currently exists only the digital asset, can be imported into AVEVA AVP so that personnel are familiar with the plant before it even exists.

This is a key tool in smoothing over the handover process so that any issues can be flagged up by the owner operators whilst the relevant expertise of the EPC is still on site – and the owner operators OPEX team can execute activities such as maintenance strategy evaluation and spares planning long before commissioning actually starts. EPCs can also benefit from AVEVA AVP during the bidding process; if a picture is worth a thousand words, then demonstrating the efficacy of a yet-to-be-built facility using AVEVA AVP is a powerfully persuasive tool.

Unlimited options

industrial gaming
By enabling repeated practice of complex or high-risk activities, industrial gaming could serve to eradicate human error, the number one cause of operational safety incidents

The usability and affordability of the technology means that specific application of the technology to the power industry is limited only by the imagination of O&M and training departments.

Some of the simplest use cases include facility familiarisation; high-risk or complex activity training and rehearsal; refresher training for collaborative activities; and HSE compliance.

In addition, there are a multitude of further applications to improve teamwork and increase productivity, including:

  • Construction, operations and maintenance planning to test the feasibility of planned works from construction through into O&M;
  • Remote problem solving;
  • Sign-off for certification and operational readiness by allowing certification; authorities to undertake virtual plant walk- throughs;
  • Complex ‘storytelling’ to create a sequence of individually driven, interactive, animated environments to demonstrate progress of a particular maintenance activity to aid comprehension.

The use of industrial gaming is expected to increase significantly over the coming years in response to the many opportunities to make full use of existing asset information – including documentation, maintenance histories, 3D models and intelligent P&IDs – to create highly sophisticated training programmes that include virtual reality environments and scenarios. But this is not merely a long-term vision: the use case exists today.

So, if you want to make a real difference to the safety and reliability of your power plant field operations team, go virtual.

Dave Coppin is executive vice-president of AVEVA

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