Using virtual reality welding to evaluate and train welders

Manufacturers and training institutions use the latest technology to ensure welders have the skills they need to succeed on the job

The FABRICATOR March 2014
March 18, 2014
By: Sarah Evans

Virtual reality welding technology is increasingly being used as a tool to streamline the hiring and evaluation process for welders. Manufacturers that have incorporated the technology are finding several benefits.

Figure 1
When using a virtual welding training system, the instructor has the ability to view the weld in real time without having to crowd into a booth with the trainee. Photos courtesy of The Lincoln Electric Co.

Today’s metal fabricating companies face an unusual challenge: In the event that they receive a large number of employment applications for an open position, only a small number of applicants truly are qualified to do the required skilled labor. This adds to the complexity of hiring qualified workers from a shrinking skilled-labor pool.

Skilled trades remain among the hardest jobs to fill, according to the 2013 Talent Shortage Survey prepared by ManpowerGroup™. The survey, which interviewed more than 1,000 U.S. employers, revealed that 39 percent of respondents report difficulty in finding staff with the right skills, while nearly half of respondents (49 percent) admit that this shortage affects their ability to serve customers.

“Employers are becoming more willing to invest in existing talent to help them advance, and also broadening their approach to sourcing new talent, both of which are starting to ease the strain of the talent shortage,” noted ManPower President Jonas Prising in a statement upon the study’s release.

To this end, employers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands by expanding their organizations’ human resources screening initiatives and in-house training programs to expedite on-boarding of new workers. Assisting this effort is a new tool: virtual reality training systems.

Why Go Virtual?

Companies in the manufacturing and industrial sectors are discovering the benefits of virtual reality systems for screening and training purposes, including the fields of welding, painting, and carpentry. Virtual reality tools give employers a safe and cost-effective way to streamline the hiring and training process from the moment an applicant walks in the door (see Figure 1). Companies don’t have to tie up production resources staffing and raw materials for screening and training needs, and applicants or trainees don’t risk injury should they make mistakes on live, full-functioning equipment.

Welding is a skill that requires not only manual dexterity, but also attention to numerous details. Weld quality depends on an operator’s travel speed, angles relative to the workpiece, arc position in the welding joint, and the operator’s body position throughout the length of the weld. Achieving these goals using only traditional training methods can get costly—requiring more hands-on supervision and raw material. Virtual reality welding can help to expedite skills development and reduce training costs.

It’s important to remember that virtual reality training is not a substitute for hands-on training in an actual welding booth. Instead, it is a valuable tool within a comprehensive blended training program. In blended training, a virtual reality welding simulator is incorporated as a supplement and enhancement to traditional welding training methods.

Virtual reality training programs, when combined with traditional training, have distinct advantages. In addition to economic and safety benefits, virtual reality training systems allow employers to provide initial hands-on training that delivers instantaneous feedback and proficiency scores as applicants and new hires essentially perform the same task they would on the job.

For example, with a virtual reality welding system, students must learn how to replicate proper machine setup before they can “weld.” They must know how to properly enter the material type; the welding process; the gas flow settings; and even the amperage, voltage, and wire-feed speed into the system before they can pick up and use the virtual welding torch.

The ability to easily repeat the task without time-consuming and costly setup at a real workstation helps quickly boost retention. After all, nothing trumps the effectiveness of “doing” when someone is learning new skills and proper procedures and techniques.

Figure 2
Virtual reality welding technology has become a classroom workhorse for the Southeast Wisconsin Carpentry Training Center in Pewaukee, Wis. The educational facility uses the technology to provide initial training in shielded metal and gas metal arc welding with different electrodes and wires and different positions.

Case Study 1: Weeding out Applicants

When it comes to the hiring process, applicants easily can say on paper that they possess the key skills outlined in the job description. Typically, it is not until after the HR department and hiring managers complete a full review, including employment screening, safety training, and a hands-on welding test, that they can fully know if applicants are competent and capable enough to pick up a welding torch on an actual job site. By this time an experienced company employee, who likely proctored the test and assisted with training, already has spent numerous hours away from production, and the company has spent money on raw materials and consumables—perhaps all for naught.

Hiring managers at Vermeer Corp., a Pella, Iowa-based manufacturer of agriculture, construction, surface mining, tree care, organic recycling, and wood waste processing equipment, believe virtual welding training technology solves that hiring problem.

In 2011 the manufacturer received a welder workforce development grant from the American Welding Society to pursue a new welding training program that incorporated virtual reality welding as one of the components. The company soon realized that the virtual welding tool not only could serve as an excellent companion to hands-on welding training, but also as an effective screening tool.

Using virtual reality training systems, hiring managers can perform preassessments of applicants to determine if they have ever picked up a welding torch or stinger or are overstating their qualifications. These initial, virtual reviews, which are conducted in the HR office and not in an actual welding booth, help to weed out candidates who never would pass a real welding test. This helps to ensure that the company’s welding personnel are focused on what really matters—their own work in the shop.

When a smaller, prequalified pool of candidates, gleaned through virtual screening, has been identified, the HR department calls in a welding expert to run through a hands-on test.

While Vermeer initially instituted its virtual welding screening and training program in the U.S., it went global with the initiative in 2012 by launching the process at Vermeer Beijing Manufacturing Ltd., a Chinese subsidiary. These virtual reality welding training systems support a variety of languages, including English, German, French, Turkish, Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, and Brazilian Portuguese.

Case Study 2: Internal Training

Once appropriate candidates land a position with a manufacturer or fabrication shop, they still may require training—a process that manufacturers increasingly are taking into their own hands. Some of these programs incorporate virtual reality welding to supplement and expedite the training process, producing knowledgeable workers who move quickly from virtual to actual hands-on training in a short time frame.

At Trinity Industries, a North American manufacturer of transportation, construction, and industrial products, managers wanted to shorten the learning curve for new hires and teach entry-level welders about necessary welding processes more rapidly than a traditional training program at a tech school or community college could. Today Trinity’s U.S. and Mexico fabrication facilities use virtual reality arc welding training to make that goal a reality. Instructors load the customized settings, which are aligned with the company’s precise welding procedure specifications or factory-specific settings, onto the virtual reality systems, giving trainees actual experience with the requirements of each plant’s production line.

Trinity welding management noticed that virtual reality training also improved the skills of company trainers, helping them to better demonstrate processes.

Case Study 3: Enhancing Traditional Training

Even trade groups that train skilled workers, such as the Southeast Wisconsin Carpentry Training Center in Pewaukee, Wis., have begun incorporating virtual reality training into their curriculums (see Figure 2). Affiliated with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, one of the nation’s largest trade unions, the training center became one of the union’s first educational institutions to adopt virtual reality welding training for its students.

Students training at the center can enroll in a basic Welding 1 course, a more advanced Welding 2 class, and classes for all of the relevant welding certifications. The educators at the center believe that all students need to first understand welding philosophy and proper technique and gain muscle memory before entering an actual welding booth. That’s why they decided to incorporate virtual reality arc welding training into the standard curriculum for welding coursework. It is used to train millwrights, carpenters, pile drivers, and interior systems carpenters—all of which require different types of welding skills.

The center’s educators believe the technology facilitates hands-on group learning in the classroom. Because the virtual welding system can connect to monitors, the instructor, the student welder, and the rest of the students in the class can see what is going on.

Facing the Labor Challenge

Growing the skilled-labor pool is not an easy task, but it is one that the industry must tackle creatively, and quickly. While there is no single answer to the skilled-labor shortage facing the manufacturing and industrial sectors, companies are stepping up to find employees through new ideas and methodologies. Virtual reality training, particularly when it is part of a blended training approach, is one such option.

Sarah Evans

Virtual Solutions Product Manager
The Lincoln Electric Co.
22801 St. Clair Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44117
Phone: 216-481-8100

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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