Owens implements virtual welding technologyWritten by Morgan Delp | | email@example.com
It may look solid, but there is more to a good weld than what meets the eye.
“People can make a beautiful weld, but it can be broken with a hammer,” said Jim Gilmore, chairman of diesel and welding technologies at Owens Community College. “You want something that looks good and is functional as well, so you couldn’t break it with a hammer or even a semi-truck. Everything — our buildings, our bridges — depends on that.”
Area welders now have the opportunity to test the appearance and durability of their work as well as practice and hone their welding skills using Owens Community College’s new VRTEX 360 systems.
The VRTEX 360 is a virtual reality arc welding trainer, a computer-based educational tool that allows users to practice welding techniques in a simulated environment, logging practice hours while reducing the material waste, scrap and energy consumption associated with traditional welding training, according to manufacturer Lincoln Electric’s website.
In January 2011, Owens unveiled its newly renovated $1.1 million, 14,512-square-foot Welding Design Center on its Toledo-area campus in Perrysburg. Using grant funds, the school purchased a VRTEX 360 training system from Lincoln Electric six months ago and a second system more recently.
When using the system, welders use tools to perform the movements of welding while wearing a mask that displays an image of what they are virtually welding in front of them, said David Siravo, director of Skilled Trades and Apprenticeship Training at Owens. A large screen displays the same image so instructors can view the process.
As the student welds, the machine makes sounds similar to those in a real welding situation, Siravo said. A quiet sound is good, while a loud sound means a good weld is not being formed. After the weld is completed, the VRTEX 360 inspects the weld with two tests.
The first test is a “nondestructive test,” where the system checks to make sure the weld is visually sound and has been formed correctly. For the “destructive test,” the virtual weld is placed on a press that pushes down, trying to break it.
“[The two tests] are the criteria used to determine if you are going to pass that particular welding certification test,” Siravo said.
The sound of a crowd cheers if the weld holds up and boos if the weld does not.
“It shows you how it broke and where it broke so we can look at it and rotate it from all directions and also zoom in on it, so we can get a better picture of what happened,” Siravo said. “This tells us a lot about if I am prepared to go to the real welder or not.”
While virtual training does not replace traditional welding training, 77 percent of welding training can be accomplished on the machine, as welders gain the muscle memory required to perform real welding, Siravo said.
“We had a gentleman who had welded for Chrysler and was retired, so he said he hadn’t welded in several years,” said Michael Bankey, associate vice president of Owens’ Workforce and Community Services. “It was kind of neat because he got on there and after a couple of tries it came back to him really quickly.”
Siravo said all types of welding can be practiced on the VRTEX 360, and instructors can use a flash drive to convert students’ performance data from the system to a pdf file on their own computer.
Because the units are portable, Owens also now has the capability to transport the technology to area companies for employee welding evaluation and training.
“[Before], if a company said, ‘We would like you to assess our employees,’ they might have to make arrangements to bring their employees down to our lab,” said Bankey. “What’s unique here is we can take it to the company, where before we couldn’t.”
The mobility saves companies time and money, Bankey said.
“Before, we could send an instructor if [the company] had welding equipment at the facility already. But it might be the case where if they do have welding capabilities at their company, they’re using it for production, so the last thing they want to do is shut that down to have someone else in training,” Bankey said.
The VRTEX 360’s initial assessment feature will be used as a pre-qualification for Owens welding students. It also allows students who may not know if welding is what they want to pursue to try out the field by practicing on the virtual systems, Bankey said. The welding program at Owens is an associate of applied science degree, consisting of 66 credits.
“If they think they want to weld but maybe have never welded before and wonder if it’s really for them, we’re going to create some really short couple of nights where they’re going to be able to do some welding on the machines,” Bankey said. “This way it will provide a very safe environment where they can’t hurt themselves, so it takes out that fear. If they like the feel and decide this is for them, then we want to get them over to the campus and get them working on the pathway toward getting certified.”
Another plus of the VRTEX 360 is the controlled environment in which welders of all levels can practice, Bankey said.
“Some of [the company’s] folks may have never welded before, so then you have the whole safety issue,” Bankey said. “We just want to make sure no one is going to get hurt or burn themselves.”
Nick Nijakowski, a welder and welding trainer at Swanton Welding & Machining, tested the VRTEX 360 at a recent Owens open house and found the machine felt similar to a real-life welding situation minus the heat and other dangerous elements.
Nijakowski said that he had looked at similar equipment numerous times before, but that it’s hard to practice and get a hands-on feel at crowded shows.
“Here I can mess with it,” Nijakowski said of Owens’ VRTEX 360.