VR goes mainstream in compressor maintenance

Virtual reality (VR) is now being used to train the next generation of maintenance and operations workers in the gas compression industry. (Image: XALTER)

Digital technology is a part of everyday life and it’s becoming even more common in midstream energy. Given the challenges of recruiting skilled operators and repair technicians to support compressors, pumps and diesel engines in the field, many midstream operators are beginning to look to digital technologies to fill the skills gaps.

Beyond smart PPE, monitoring sensors, and augmented reality glasses for assisted field service, virtual reality (VR) is now being used to prepare and maintain a skilled workforce – fueled by the growing interest in the industrial metaverse.

While Fortune 500 energy companies such as ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and Baker Hughes have been using VR for various training scenarios, midstream gas is now embracing VR for site planning, operator and technician training, and customer onboarding.

Attendees to the 2021 GPA Midstream Convention got a first-hand opportunity to experience VR as part of a live demonstration hosted by the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT) as part of a VR pilot to transform skills training for energy sector jobs.

While VR doesn’t replace hands-on training with real-world equipment, it accelerates it because students gain hundreds of hours of task practice that they simply wouldn’t have due to the constraints of accessing real-world equipment. One of the first pieces of midstream equipment to be simulated is a virtual compressor skid that allows students to perform a variety of real-world tasks such as lockout/tagout, and respond to various safety hazard scenarios in a safe environment.

This same technology is being made available to the university’s private industry partners for use in recruiting and workforce development. In April, OSUIT announced a multi-year commitment to further expand VR program by creating a virtual metaversity campus that would include virtual labs, simulators and a library of virtual equipment models (“digital twins”). The metaversity platform will be featured at the 2022 GPA Midstream Convention for interested companies to experience.

“I’m excited to bring over 30 years of energy sector experience in my new role at OSUIT,” said Bob Firth, dean of the School of Engineering and Construction Technology. “I may be even more excited about the potential that I see for our VR initiative to transform how we train our students to prepare them for careers in the energy industry. The fact is, any real-world training center is going to have limits on physical space, instructors, and throughput– however, VR transcends these limitations to provide anytime, anywhere task and process learning. We believe that what we are building at OSUIT could be a model for midstream and downstream energy companies and we’re interested in exploring partnership opportunities to travel this journey together.”

The Tulsa-based company behind the OSUIT project is XALTER, which has partnered with the GPA and GPSA to help member companies better understand how to approach VR including use cases, ROI recovery, and operations gains. The GPA and GPSA leadership believe that VR could be transformational for its members as aging Baby Boomers retire and research studies by Accenture, Deloitte, and PwC reveal that VR delivers better outcomes while aligning with how Millennials and Gen Z workers prefer to learn.

“We were somewhat skeptical at first about VR technology, but the learning science is compelling and member interest has been positive,” said GPA President Joel Moxley. “We had a chance during our 2022 board meetings to better understand the VR use cases across the energy industry and it’s clear that this digital technology is being adopted quickly and is not a fad.”

Companies such as Williams, Targa Resources, Western Midstream, and Kodiak Gas Services are among many that see value in exploring VR use for recruiting, workforce development, safety, and operations.

“As GPA chairman, I was excited to learn about the practical applications of VR to midstream operations,” said Clark White, EVP at Targa Resources. “Like many midstream companies, we’re always seeking to recruit and train skilled labor and ensure safety. Given the shift in generational learning preferences and the real-time access to content, I am very bullish on VR as a key learning and collaboration platform in the energy sector. In fact, I’ve already purchased a VR headset for my office and have been using several OSUIT learning modules to explore the possibilities.”

Although the industrial metaverse may still be in early days, practical use of VR to equip the midstream workforce is going mainstream. “If COVID taught us anything the past two years, the ability to recruit and train workers, engage customers, and collaborate with vendors can change at any time,” said XALTER Industry Adviser Steve Patti. “While we can’t predict the future – we can prepare for it. More midstream operators are discovering that digital technology like VR can help insulate them from business disruptions while improving their ability to attract and retain talent in a competitive marketplace.”

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