Imagine the immense responsibility on the shoulders of an 800-ton crane operator, installing two large, 150-foot-tall reactors along with a smaller one—weighing a combined 1.1 million pounds—as part of the expansion project underway at the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge polyolefins plant.
A lift of that magnitude, posing enormous risk, requires significant preparation. Is the rigging installed properly to avoid load inversion? Is the load swing stabilized? Are all lift team members and bystanders in the safe zone? The crane operator must carefully calculate the physics of the lift, adrenaline in overdrive, knowing logistics for the arrival of the reactors have been underway for weeks.
Suddenly the operator discovers the rigging is misaligned. The load will invert shortly after the lift begins, requiring adjustments before it’s too late. He reaches to wipe the sweat from his brow only to remember this is just a practice test—a virtual reality simulation, in fact, designed to prepare operators for a lift before stepping foot on the crane.
The virtual reality modules are part of a new training initiative launched by ExxonMobil, in partnership with Louisiana Economic Development and local IT firms, ahead of its expansion. The craning and rigging module was one of the first developed, along with others that will train ExxonMobil employees in critical processes and safety standards.
“We’re hiring a lot of people, so it’s imperative we increase competency quickly—one way is through virtual reality,” says Keitt Wannamaker, project lead for the ExxonMobil polypropylene plant. “It’s time consuming and difficult to train out in the field. With virtual reality, it takes 20 minutes. If we train in the field, it can take all day.”
Not only does it save time, virtual reality offers a better training experience, company officials say, as employees are able to immerse themselves in a situation, test their reactions and become familiar with the operations of the new plant before it’s even completed.
“We’re going to build it virtually before we build it in the real world,” say Ken Miller, an ExxonMobil retiree and training program coordinator. “And operators will be trained before.”
The initiative also marks the beginning of a promising partnership opportunity between the area’s robust industrial sector and its fledgling tech industry. ExxonMobil is working with three south Louisiana IT firms—including Baton Rouge-based King Crow Studios and Pixel Dash and Thibodaux-based 3D Media—to develop the virtual reality training modules. The partnership is expected to expand the demand for tech work in the Capital Region.
LED’s FastStart workforce training program, recognized as the best in the country, also married perfectly with ExxonMobil’s virtual reality initiative, providing the support and a financial incentive to get the initiative going. A third partner, Baton Rouge Community College, will also be involved, as ExxonMobil has donated funding to the school to outfit six virtual reality training stations.
The initiative, which can be expanded to other companies, puts Louisiana at the forefront of the virtual reality movement expected to take hold across the country and train the next generation of workers, especially in industries like the petrochemical sector in south Louisiana.
“Other states are moving into e-learning but not really into the virtual reality space yet,” says LED FastStart Executive Director Paul Helton. “This puts us head and shoulders above the rest.”
ExxonMobil has been going through something of a digital transformation, launching a digital manufacturing strategy about a year and a half ago, says the company’s global IT architect Coila Lafleur. Part of that strategy includes virtual reality simulations staged at ExxonMobil’s tech hub, or “digital garage,” in Houston.
So when local ExxonMobil leaders learned about the major expansion project coming to Baton Rouge, they wanted to take the opportunity to integrate technology and partner with some of the firms in the city’s nascent IT sector, says ExxonMobil spokeswoman Stephanie Cargile. They reached out to LED for help, which then suggested the FastStart incentive and local IT firms.
Other industrial companies are beginning to get involved in similar initiatives, as they see technology as a key to their futures. And that’s good news for Baton Rouge’s tech industry, based in the heart of a booming petrochemical region.
“We see this as real opportunity to marry the two sectors,” Cargile says.
ExxonMobil’s interest in virtual reality training aligned perfectly with the skills sets of local video game developers, like King Crow Studios, says founder Cody Louviere. Other major corporations, such as Walmart and JetBlue, have reported seeing training time reduced by 40% since investing in virtual reality.
“Empirical evidence backs up why immersion is so important to learning,” Louviere says. “When you put on a headset, you’re effectively in an alternate dimension.”
As opposed to traditional training methods, virtual reality allows employees to actually perform tasks as they would on the job. And research has consistently shown the best way to learn, Louviere says, is by doing.
The initiative also couldn’t have come at a better time, says Helton, of LED.
“With FastStart, job specific training is our business,” he says. “We have long recognized the old-fashioned model of bringing 25 people to a classroom and lecturing for 12 hours does not fit today’s hiring and learning needs. We’ve been getting into the e-learning space for a while and just started getting into virtual reality.”
The partnership is also a win-win for local IT firms like King Crow Studios, which plans to hire up to six more employees thanks to the ExxonMobil initiative.
BRCC, meanwhile, has begun constructing six training stations at its Acadian Thruway and Winborne Avenue location. Vice Chancellor for Workforce Solutions Girard Melancon says 90% of the college’s workforce training program is already geared toward the petrochemical industry, so the virtual reality initiative is a natural fit.
The simulated exercises provide an opportunity to not only train students, but also improve their reactions in the event of an emergency.
“So when they go out to ExxonMobil or anywhere,” Melancon says, “they will have that behavior ingrained.”