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3D Days: Prepared for emergencies thanks to virtual reality

The OMV Schwechat Refinery. Dominik is deep in concentration. He approaches the furnace, opens it and goes in. Ignition gas approved? Check. Locks? Check. Now to ignite. What does the flame look like? Attention, check the oxygen supply!

Of course, this situation is not being played out in real life, but rather in virtual reality. Dominik Janca is an apprentice in the OMV Schwechat Refinery and is studying with his trainer Alfred Kellner and his fellow apprentice Stefan Sowa on the 3D simulator. Alfred Kellner regularly holds training sessions like this with his pupils, who spend a lot of time in the classroom at the beginning of their apprenticeships. These “3D Days” give them the chance to get to know the refinery through interaction with virtual reality. An exciting experience for the apprentices, a welcome change from theory—and an essential part of their training to become Chemical Process Engineers.

Anyone observing the apprentices can quickly see how passionate they are about what they’re doing. In the safe virtual world they simulate inspections, start-ups, shut-downs, and identifying and rectifying errors. They learn how to cope with sudden stress situations, make decisions quickly and work in a team. This will enable them to keep calm in emergency situations and make the right decisions. After all, employee safety is the top priority. Furthermore, any downtime can have massive consequences with costs running into the millions.

“With the 3D simulator here I can do things and learn things that would be impossible in the real plant. For example, I can go into the furnace and see exactly how it works”, says Dominik, who is going through different modules on the 3D simulator. His colleague Stefan has taken on the role of dispatcher today; he is controlling what happens from his laptop. Stefan appears completely at home in this role, but he hasn’t always felt so confident: “When I first stood in the simulator with the 3D headset, it was really difficult. You put the headset on and are suddenly confronted by situations. But it has got easier with practice and we have learnt everything in multiple stages. Every pump is different. I am learning the fundamentals here so that I can then concentrate on the respective model in the plant”, he says.

A refinery is not a candy factory. Our goal is to make the work as safe as possible for the employees and avoid incidents. This is why we use the 3D simulator to train for emergencies.

Virtual Reality: Almost like real life

“I have been responsible for the 3D simulator since 2005. We have developed 21 modules that are linked together. My goal is for every apprentice to go through each of these modules at least once. Every pump, every barrel, every compressor, every heat exchanger, every process furnace, every column which you see here in the simulator is also there in the refinery. To operate them properly there is a long chain of command that we need to follow point by point—and that’s exactly what we practice here. Afterwards I send the apprentices back to the plant so that they can apply their knowledge and then finally there is a feedback round in which we share what we have learnt”. Working with apprentices is Alfred Kellner’s favorite job: “It means that I have 76 children including my son”.

Why the 3D simulator is so amazing

It’s well known that hands-on practice is a more effective learning method than theoretical explanations. After all, safety is not just about knowing what you should avoid, but also knowing what you need to do. “With the simulator you can take your time, or take a break, you can make mistakes; of course you can’t do any of that in the plant while operations are ongoing. Nowadays most of the aggregates are truly uninterrupted, you can’t switch something off in order to test something”. That’s what the 3D simulator is for. The common mistakes that could occur in real life have been precisely programmed in the simulator just as they would happen at the plant. “An apprentice once talked to me about a scenario with the compressor. He said that he had had to restart the compressor after a maintenance session. Even though it was three years since his 3D training, he had the feeling that he had really done that once. That confirmed to me once again just how important the 3D simulator is for us”, says Alfred Kellner.

How it all started

In 1995 the issue of virtual reality first came to the attention of an OMV employee. By chance he was in a cybercafé and saw somebody with a massive data helmet on his head boxing on a type of stage. He saw how real the situation was for the boxer and recognized the technology’s massive potential. With this new discovery he came back to the OMV training department and proposed developing virtual reality for educational purposes. Steps were immediately taken to realize his goal in cooperation with the Kepler University in Linz. The 3D simulator went into operation just two years later.

“At the beginning there were just two pumps on the left-hand side and two pumps on the right-hand side, manually programmed from photos with lots of small triangles. You could go through with a 3D headset and see what it looked like. That was all there was at the start”.

In order to acquire data we went through the refinery and photographed every individual component of the plant. “I stood there with a microphone and recorded noises; those were exciting times when we were developing it, really exciting”, says Alfred Kellner.

OMV as a trailblazer in the field of virtual reality

The 3D simulator in the Schwechat Refinery was the first of its kind; the software was specially developed for OMV and is also patented. But the software is also used in the OMV Burghausen Refinery in Germany for teaching apprentices. Otherwise this technology is only used for training pilots and in nuclear power stations. The software is regularly updated, with new scenarios added and existing ones expanded so that the program keeps on growing in line with the real refinery.

Outlook

Alfred Kellner: “It’s our baby. Our ambitious goal is for the simulated plant to react in just the same way as the real one. To have the best possible effect on learning everything has to look exactly as it does in reality. This is a much better way to learn than through theory. The speed at which the technology in the field of virtual reality is growing is simply incredible. Things that were state-of-the-art in summer 2016 are now being upgraded again. I am excited to see what comes next and what else we will be able to realize in future!”

In any case, Alfred Kellner and his team will keep working continuously on developing OMV’s virtual reality. At the end of the day it’s all about training the apprentices and the safety of the employees and the refinery.

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