The average age of qualified engineers has crept ever upwards, so National Grid in the UK is addressing the problem with a big recruitment drive. In September 2012, 46 Graduates, 64 Engineering Trainees and 39 Substation Apprentices began work for the Company. This year was the same and next year is set to be similar.

“The race is on to get these recruits fully trained before too many of our existing engineers retire”   Chris Croce, Technical & Safety Specialist at National Grid’s Eakring Training Centre

Previously, National Grid’s trainees were trained on a range of electrical switchgear and gas equipment in the National Grid’s award-winning, Eakring training centre in Nottinghamshire. The diverse range of gas and electricity equipment found throughout National Grid’s networks meant it was impossible for trainees to experience the full range of models in a training centre environment.

The solution

National Grid chose Virtalis as its technological partner and installed a Virtalis ActiveWall into its Training Centre and also has a Virtalis ActiveMove portable system for Road Shows, Recruitment Fairs and Site Visits.

“When we take our VR kit out to Recruitment Fairs, everyone wants to have a go and we believe that showing ourselves as technological leaders in this way has boosted our recruitment, both in numbers and quality. Let’s face it, 3D is how we all live our lives, so VR looks fantastic and is state-of-the-art. We have also revolutionised the training of our operational field force and training scheme recruits with Virtual Reality. Everyone who has seen the ActiveWall and ActiveMove systems agree they certainly deliver the “wow factor”. Our trainee engineers are already conversant with digital technology when they join us, so it makes sense to take that familiarity one step further and introduce them to the Company’s engineering assets via VR.” John Tyler, National Grid’s transmission technical training manager

The ActiveWall is an immersive, interactive 3D visualisation system and is probably the best selling VR system in the world. ActiveWall draws on active stereo technology and features a custom screen, specialist computer, Virtalis custom software and powerful projectors. Movements within the ActiveWall environment are tracked using a tracking system.  This added functionality alters the perspective of the visuals according to the user’s position and orientation within the scene to give a natural and accurate sense of relationship and scale. The hand-held controller allows the immersive experience to be enhanced further. The user can navigate through the virtual world, pick and manipulate objects, and even tools, in real-time.

ActiveMove is the ActiveWall’s smaller sibling. It comprises an active, stereoscopic, three-chip DLP projector with a rear projection screen in a dedicated enclosure, coupled with a PC, eyewear, head and hand tracking, installation and support. ActiveMove is transported in two, custom, wheeled cases specifically design for local and international shipping, making it easy to share between locations.

“We, or our partners, like Alstom, provide CAD data to Virtalis and they VR-enable these models, optimising them for interactive 3D stereoscopic display. Crucial this year has been for us to render in 3D a virtual replica of our T155 Circuit Breaker in our new £4 million workshops.  Although the workshop has been specifically designed for hands-on maintenance practice for our new trainees, we find virtual practice in a VR world speeds development, making our recruits even more confident of their skills. Also, there are some tasks that are done very, very rarely, either because the kit is rarely used, or as is the case of our Alstom T155 400kV Circuit Breaker, it isn’t sensible to carry out the procedure on a regular basis. This particular circuit breaker uses Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6) gas as the insulating medium, which is a greenhouse gas so is not designed to be released to the atmosphere. Circumstances such as these are absolutely perfect for virtual, rather than real-world, practice.” Chris Croce, Technical & Safety Specialist at National Grid’s Eakring Training Centre.

The future

“VR allows us to be both practical and theoretical.  Our trainees can see the whole picture for the first time. They will be able to virtually strip down, put back together and operate our equipment in a completely safe environment. Although we are beginning with training, it has become apparent to us that VR could so easily perform a major role in our product lifecycle management. This really is just the beginning.” John Tyler, National Grid’s transmission technical training manager

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