Virtual reality technology has the power to transform the way we look at our business and serve our customers. Tamsin Kashap, Gas Transmission Innovation Manager, explains how we’re working with our partners to bring the benefits of the virtual world into the real one.
Back in the 1990s, the science of virtual reality (VR) – where you could be physically present in a computer-simulated environment – was expensive and ahead of its time. But as the technology has developed and prices have fallen, there’s no doubt that virtual reality is going through a long overdue reboot.
It’s not just video gamers who are excited. This immersive VR technology is gaining a real foothold at National Grid and promises to be one of the most exciting innovations in Gas Transmission over the coming years.
We’ve been working on cutting-edge 3D modelling, through our Building Information Modelling (BIM) project, for several years now and the development and application of VR technology is a fascinating part of our Network Innovation Allowance-funded work.
Essentially, through close collaboration with our partners internally and externally we’ve been investigating how innovative tools like VR can add value to the way National Grid operates. The results are astounding and have the potential to revolutionise the way we work and reduce our costs substantially.
We’ll import the 3D models that the business has generated of its buildings, installations and other assets into the latest 3D gaming software to create amazingly tactile, engaging and affordable training environments.
Instead of staring at a Powerpoint presentation or working through meaty training manuals, you’ll be able to slip on a headset and walk around our assets and installations, practising critical operations or maintenance, and building confidence and expertise in a safe and forgiving virtual world.
Paul Lee is our BIM project manager. He’s been aware of the incredible possibilities offered by VR technology for some time, but the costs proved difficult initially, which led to some outside-the-box thinking.
“One area that has embraced virtual reality is the gaming world,” says Paul. “So we looked into whether we could take our 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD) models and import them into a games engine instead.”
It turned out to be an inspired move. With the help of engineering and design consultancy Premtech Ltd and specialist engineering recruiter the Morson Group, we’ve been able to import our models into a gaming engine called Unity. We then bring the virtual world alive through a set of 3D goggles called Oculus Rift.
Early uses of the technology within the business will be to enhance formal process safety assessments (FPSAs), build wider client engagement and strengthen our training programmes.
Ian Butt is a director at Premtech Ltd, who we’ve worked really closely with on all our BIM modelling and VR technology. Ian’s company fits all the bits together that allow such a hi-tech virtual reality world to be possible.
“We’ve built a kind of lego box of components,” he explains. “Right down to the most basic nuts, bolts and washers. From there, we create 3D models of assets and installations, which can then be imported into the VR headset.
“From a training point of view, this means you can take the assets to bits and strip it down in a virtual world – a safe environment – instead of taking the real thing to pieces. It’s like being the pilot of a plane and practising in a simulator before doing a real flight.
“From your office, you can walk around a site before it’s even been built. On a site that’s already built, you can walk around it and see how you might operate and maintain it. By practising these operations first, you remove risk and improve how you do your job.”
Both Paul and Ian agree there are significant advantages in immersive VR. The first is a substantial cost benefit, which can only be good news for our business and customers.
“The technology has the potential to significantly reduce travel costs and therefore our carbon emissions,” says Paul. “Instead of moving our workforce around for training, we could move the training kit to them.
“When there’s a maintenance problem, specialists could dial in and talk colleagues through the job. In the past, when we’ve had an event that we haven’t had the expertise in the UK to deal with, we’ve had to fly people to Norway or Canada. But in this new virtual world, you could just dial in and a specialist could show you how it’s done without leaving the office.”
At just £200 a headset, if you factor in one person’s travel and hotel costs when training, we’ve pretty much broken even after one event. And the benefits don’t stop there. These VR solutions can also help us retain vital knowledge in the business. Instead of potentially losing expertise when a senior member of our workforce retires, we could map and capture all their knowledge and skills in the VR world, protecting this valuable knowledge and building on it into the future.
At the other end of the scale, it’s also great for young apprentices and existing employees to keep their skills up without having to work on real assets.
One person who’s particularly interested in this is John Dowson, our Pipelines Maintenance Centre (PMC) Manager. “Our equipment is large, to say the least,” says John. “We deal with pipes of all types of design and diameter and our staff can sometimes wait eight, nine or 10 years before they have to deploy certain kit to deal with specific problems in a pipeline.
“These VR solutions will allow us to bring our apprentices on more quickly and manage the competencies of our existing staff. As our technicians are spread right across the country another benefit is that by not having to physically transport staff to real assets, we’ll significantly reduce our training costs.”
Paul sees additional health and safety benefits. “Some operations only happen twice a year, so a VR environment can really accelerate learning. In quiet times, staff can run through procedures and build their skills and confidence. It’s great from a health and safety point of view,” he says.
Away from training, another key advantage is in better engaging our stakeholders. The first-person perspective of VR technology means we can give stakeholders a much more realistic view of our design and build intentions on a project.
“If you’re developing a new site in the middle of the countryside, you can alleviate fears by using an immersive 3D model of your plans,” says Ian. “Stakeholders will be able to clearly visualise what we’re building, which alleviates a lot of fears.”
As more sites and equipment are modelled and hardware and software become cheaper, the opportunities will only get bigger. It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, all our gas installations were mapped on drawing boards. Moving to CAD was a big step and it took time to reach a tipping point. It feels like we’re at the same sort of crossroads with immersive VR technology.
With the help of our partners inside and outside the business, we’ll try to stay ahead of this fast-flowing river, fully exploiting it and taking it to the ideal scale to provide the right benefits to our employees, stakeholders and customers.