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ExxonMobil, LED FastStart and Local Tech Firms Partner to Create Virtual Reality Training

It’s one thing to learn workplace procedures from a manual. It’s another thing altogether to experience them in a simulated environment rife with real life situations. A new virtual reality (VR) training program developed to support ExxonMobil’s Polyolefins plant expansion in Baton Rouge brings leading edge VR training to the company’s construction teams and future workforce.

ExxonMobil’s VR training program is the result of a partnership between the company, LED FastStart and four Louisiana-based tech firms. The training program supports ExxonMobil’s $500 million Polyolefins plant expansion in Baton Rouge and uses VR modules to simulate high-stakes workplace scenarios, enabling employees to learn procedures without putting them at risk or shutting down active units.

Creating a partnership

ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Public and Government Affairs Manager Stephanie Cargile says the project is a natural next step for worker training and something the global company has already been focused on.

“ExxonMobil provides much of its own worker training, and at the time of this project, we were just beginning to pilot virtual reality (VR) training technologies across the Gulf Coast,” Cargile says. “We challenged LED to partner with us to create high-tech, VR modules for the Polyolefins plant expansion.”

Cargile says one of the ancillary goals for the project was to support the regional economy by bringing in local tech firms to help develop individual components. ExxonMobil’s project team, along with the Louisiana Technology Park and LED, enlisted support from Pixel Dash and King Crow in Baton Rouge, Metairie-based Kinemagic, and Thibodaux-based 3D Media to design and execute different facets of the work.

Becoming competent in a high-stakes environment

Virtual reality is increasingly seen as a powerful training methodology across many sectors, including oil and gas, manufacturing, defense, health care and others. It’s especially effective in training workers safely in critical or hazardous procedures. VR equipment places workers in an immersive environment that feels like the real thing, allowing them to practice mission-critical tasks without placing themselves or others at risk. Workers don a headset and use hand controls to work their way through a series of workplace-relevant prompts. As they complete each task, they develop muscle memory response in a manner that far surpasses book or lecture-style learning. Transitioning to this type of training can increase retention of information by as much as 80%, say experts.

Tracking progress

As employees move through VR modules, managers monitor their progress. A tracking system pinpoints strength or weakness in a range of competencies, including such tasks as operating heavy equipment or responding to a fire emergency.

“The ExxonMobil project is an example of how VR technology can be used to produce safety-critical training modules, enabling operators to experience the full range of safety protocols while participating in a VR training session,” says LED FastStart Executive Director Paul Helton. “Workers experience real life situations and make adjustments to their behaviors when they make a mistake, all in a safe environment.”

Streamlining construction and preparing the workforce

Cargile says some of the recently created VR training modules specifically support construction for the Polyolefins plant expansion, which should be operational in 2021. One VR training module, for example, simulates lifting a reactor larger than an Airbus airplane filled with 500 passengers and luggage.

“This simulation will help our project team better plan for a safer, more reliable and efficient lift,” says Cargile. “Compared to traditional methods of learning, ExxonMobil has found that when people are engaged in an immersive learning experience, they take in a higher rate of information with a significant increase in retention.”

Cargile adds that a subset of the VR modules will also be useful to other ExxonMobil sites and will be integrated into the company’s Global Manufacturing Training system.

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