The need to remain cost-effective while enhancing worker safety is increasing the use of virtual reality to train welders in the construction industry. As Joint Apprenticeship Training Centers (JATCs) increase the use of this method in their training, the International Training Institute (ITI) is building relationships with companies that provide virtual welding equipment and training, says Mike Harris, ITI welding program director.
“We allow vendors to bring their products to our sites to show our instructors how they can be used to enhance the reach and scope of training,” Harris said.
Virtual reality has become a part of some JATC and shop programming, Harris explained. A member signs up to take a welding class, and the instructor determines how much virtual reality to use.
If a JATC does not have virtual reality (VR) machines, the ITI will contact its vendors and arrange for a demo at the JATC. “Only a few JATCs out of 153 have these machines since this is still a relatively new space in our industry, and the machines are still fairly expensive,” Harris said.
Trainees traditionally learn to weld with an instructor, in a quiet booth outfitted with the equipment needed and materials to practice on—metal, wire, filler rod and gas, and stainless sheet metal and steel in different gages and weights.
In virtual reality training, trainees work in a virtual jobsite environment with real sounds and visual effects like light and sparks. The program can also be viewed on a large screen for group learning.
Welding, in and of itself is “probably some of the most-expensive training we offer,” Harris said, “because everything you’re creating, you’re throwing away.” A major advantage of virtual training is the cost savings on materials.
In addition, “the virtual reality machines can track and score everything the welder does, and provide instant feedback on how they handle tasks,” he noted. “It can identify issues and compensate for errors faster. That is important to the younger generation,” he added, “so virtual training can help recruit millennials to the trade.”
Virtual training can also be more effective in helping trainees improve hand-eye coordination and be flexible with how much time a trainee spends on specific skills and assignments.
Virtual training is also safer than hands-on training because there are no smoke, fumes, or sparks. However, “the caveat is that you have to be very careful not to become complacent,” Harris cautioned.
“Sometimes when you work with actual welding equipment, you have to remind trainees about potential safety issues. There is no penalty in the virtual world. You are creating muscle memory of what to do and how to use the equipment, but you have to be extra aware of the safety aspects. It doesn’t take long to be aware of the risks once you get burned.”
“All manufacturers are now coming out with what I call hybrid virtual training programs,” Harris added. “You are in an actual shop and really doing welding, but with sensors all around you—even speakers in your helmet—to guide you. You’re getting real experience, including the safety aspects, with immediate feedback. It’s the best way to use that technology for greater safety.”
Since the reality is that “when you weld, you will feel heat. If you can practice in a virtual space, you’ll have a better starting point,” he said. “You might only need 150 hours in the booth instead of 200.”
For access to virtual reality welding training, visit the ITI website.