A junior technician reaches for a tool from her supervisor. Unsure of what to do next, she looks at a QR code on the piece of equipment in front of her and the information she needs pops up before her eyes.
She checks with her supervisor before proceeding and is relieved to be told she is on the right track.
What makes this exchange remarkable is that the pair are not only in different rooms, but different cities.
Welcome to Mixed Reality (MR) training — an innovative experience that is next-level Virtual Reality (VR) and tipped to help solve the skills crisis.
After two years of R&D, the concept is being launched for commercial development today by Victorian-based hydraulics company HYDAC Australia.
Managing Director Mark Keen said the company’s Virtual Reality Training for Hydraulics could be used in all industries and was particularly useful for remote location application in defence, mining and agriculture.
“There can be much danger in areas such as defence or mining,” Mr Keen said.
“Imagine if you are servicing a tank, how do you get someone to do the work and how does someone supervise that, in real time?
“I can have a junior technician go somewhere and be guided remotely by a master and have their work verified and signed off, which is unique. This solution has never been available before.”
The potential is huge, Mr Keen says.
“If we can have a much larger cohort of junior technicians supervised by a couple of masters, it can be revolutionary in the training space and in the infield service long term,” he said.
“There are not enough master technicians to go around, so when we look at all the different areas this can apply to because of skills shortages, it is truly exciting.”
The infield support available with the MR (also known as Augmented Reality) training is the latest phase of a program that started with VR on-demand and instructor-guided training.
Prior to these advances, HYDAC was offering in-person hydraulics training to about 350 students a year throughout Australia and New Zealand in its training centres in Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland.
“Not everyone is willing to spend thousands of dollars on flights and accommodation to come and do a training course, so we wanted to make this more accessible,” Mr Keen said.
Anyone with a lounge room or an empty room can do HYDAC’s VR training.
The basic understanding of hydraulic components and functions has limits when you look at complete systems (HPUs — Hydraulic Power Units) and see the interrelationship of components in action, Mr Keen says.
Virtual Reality makes the training more visually and mentally engaging.
Students are sent a VR headset with instruction videos and imbedded “how to” practice content.
When the student understands how to set up and interact, they can access a complete high-resolution, photo realistic HPU system that can be examined, with individual sections/components viewed as 3D models.
“The VR training lets students become familiar with walking around and interacting with the system,” Mr Keen said.
“Next, they can have a teacher come into the virtual space. One of our trainers puts on their headset and they feel like they are in the same room. They can see each other, they can talk to each other, they can pass each other tools. They can do everything on a truly interactive basis and play with, and manipulate, the system.”
HYDAC has real-life HPU systems in its nationwide branches to bring to life the MR experience.
“They are the same as the units that students practise on in VR,” Mr Keen said.
“If people have done the VR training, we can bring them into a branch where they can instead use a Microsoft Hololens headset.
“The Hololens headset has a camera embedded between the eyes so you can stream what the operator is doing to a remote location.
“For example, a supervisor can be watching what the student is doing from their office. They can see what the student sees.
“They can also give verbal guidance using speakers and microphones in the headset. If the student comes across something that is too complex, the supervisor can walk them through it.”
The Hololens headset also lets students access the pop-up information they utilised in the VR space when they look at QR codes on the real-life HPUs.
“As soon as you look at the QR codes, content pops up,” Mr Keen said.
“If you have forgotten some of your training or there is additional information that you need, that is all at your fingertips without anybody to coach you.
“Again, a student’s work and competence can be remotely reviewed and assessed — and certified, if required. All with our trainer never leaving the office.”
The most amazing benefit comes when students use the Hololens to work on real systems in the field, Mr Keen says.
“They can be monitored and guided remotely, retaining any pop-up information they might need to perform real service, troubleshooting and maintenance. This includes how-to videos or any content they may need.
“In this way, field service technicians have unimaginable support and digital tools to assist them anywhere and anytime.
“From their office, supervisors can check and sign off on work done, and work can be recorded for analysis later.”
A German firm, HYDAC has 50 national companies employing more than 9,500 people worldwide. It is one of the top three hydraulics companies in the world.
The “open-minded” and “entrepreneurial” privately owned family business has thrown its support behind the Australian team in its development of Virtual Reality Training for Hydraulics, Mr Keen said.
Application engineers and technical trainers from HYDAC have collaborated with researchers from Deakin University’s Deakin Motion Lab, with the support of the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC), to bring the concept to fruition.
“By integrating the training and the programming in a team, we can bring these solutions forward very quickly and far more usefully, rather than getting to the end and someone saying: ‘That’s not what I wanted. Go back and redo’," Mr Keen said.
“There are technology companies who say they can provide VR, but they are not application and engineering specialists.
“We’ve done thousands of hours of training. We understand how training should be structured. We understand the engineering side of it, as well as the service and maintenance side of it – how people would interact with the equipment. That’s our unique point of difference.”
The company’s next goal is to gain accreditation from ASQA (Australian Skills Quality Authority).
“They need to come and try it,” Mr Keen said.
“It’s accepting the digital solution, which they haven’t done before and I guess they haven’t been asked to do before.
“If a student does the right number of hours and the right content, if they do the proper assessment and they are viewed by the accredited trainer the same as they would be face to face, there really is no difference.
“It’s no less than face-to-face training.”
Results from test groups have been positive.
“We’ve done a couple of test groups with students from universities who don’t know anything about hydraulics, so they were real guinea pig test groups,” Mr Keen said.
“We did a couple of sessions with them doing face-to-face training and we paralleled groups doing the VR training. We’ve got documented feedback from them showing the memory retention and learning experience were superior in the VR compared to the standard face-to-face training.
“We’ve got absolutely no doubt — and this is third-party verified; the university has run these tests — that this is as good or better than any normal training solution.
“And, of course, we can multiply it out. We can send as many headsets out to as many people, wherever they are.
“This is significant. We’re really breaking new ground here.”
HYDAC has been a member of Ai Group since 2018.
“Hydac has been a member of The Australian Group for many years. We have partnered with them in our Nationally Recognised & Certified Hydraulic Training and continue with our apprenticeship-hosting program.
Additionally, we have participated in a number of seminars hosted by Ai Group where industry gains insights into efficiency gains, regulation compliance and trends affecting all business.
Finally, we have relied on Ai Group for up-to-the-minute information on COVID-19 and compliance in the complex state-by-state rules variations and we continue to depend on them for news on all industry-related issues. Our relationship is one that we value.” — Managing Director Mark Keen
Wendy Larter is the Senior Content Writer at Ai Group. She is a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.