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Virtual Reality Changes Training for These Heavy Lifters

An aerial view of a factory in the middle of a forest.
The Hyundai Power Transformers plant in Montgomery, Ala.Photo courtesy of HPT.

​A training program in Alabama is one of the latest examples of a public-private partnership using virtual reality (VR) tools to skill people in manufacturing safety protocols.

Hyundai Power Transformers (HPT) collaborated with Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT), a state workforce agency, and TRANSFR, an immersive learning startup based in New York City, to build a simulation of HPT's seven-story facility at AIDT.

Located in Montgomery, Ala., HPT specializes in manufacturing power transformers used in electrical grids at electrical substations across the U.S. It is a division of Korea's Hyundai Electric & Energy Systems Co. based in Birmingham, Ala.

The VR training facility is used to teach safety protocols required to operate heavy machinery and equipment, including power transformers, that weigh up to 400 tons. 

In January, job candidates in AIDT pre-employment classes started using VR tools to practice those procedures before applying them on the job, said Bobby Jon Drinkard during a recent panel discussion on hoist and crane safety training. He is a training manager at AIDT, which provided funding for the training facility, curriculum development, equipment and instructors.

A trainee using the virtual training program. Photo courtesy of TRANSFR.HPT also plans to use the training with current employees both for upskilling and to reinforce existing skills.

"That practical experience is ultimately what a company is going to want on the plant floor at the end of the day," Drinkard said, noting that VR is applicable to entry-level, intermediate and advanced-level workers.

Workers who have experienced this training have a better grasp of what will be expected of them on the plant floor, said Jacqueline Allen, assistant director of communications and external affairs at AIDT.

"We definitely see an improvement in our training scores and also an increase in the percentage of applicants that stay on the job," she said during the panel discussion.

"[Employees] seem to retain the knowledge at a much higher rate, and this process involves several of the different learning styles."

The system can monitor the progress of each person during training, determine any shortcomings in the learning process, and assign different modules or practices to address areas needing improvement—either for the trainee or in the training itself, Allen said.

There's also the safety factor.

"We can now train people in much safer environments with little to no risk of them getting hurt utilizing the equipment or the tools," she said.

Getting on Board

HPT was a bit hesitant when AIDT approached the company about incorporating VR as a training tool, said Tony Wojciechowski, chief HR officer at HPT.

"We've done online training. We do in-person training. We train, train, train, train but one of the things that we saw [in VR] is it's repeatable. It's sustainable. Everyone gets the same training, and it's also very interesting to young people."

He also likes the interactivity of VR.

"You can't sit in the back of the room and be playing on your phone or talking to someone or not focusing, because [the training] tests you as you go."

While HPT is using VR to train employees to operate heavy cranes, it also is considering using the technology in pre-employment training of precision measurement skills and featuring it in the division's employment ads, Wojciechowski said.

Using VR is a way to show young people that manufacturing is "not hot, it's not hard, it's not nasty. It's kind of cool. It's involved in technology."

He likened the training tool to golf: "You warm up on the driving range, and then you go play the game. You're warming up on the driving range when [you] do this."

HPT does not envision replacing its technical instructors with VR, "but it's a tool to aid technical instructors," Wojciechowski said. "Training needs to be innovative, and it needs to be interesting and also fun. If something's fun, it's not a drudgery."


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