As the average age of qualified engineers has crept ever upwards, National Grid has embarked on a big recruitment drive.  “This September, we have 46 Graduates, 64 Engineering Trainees and 39 Substation Apprentices starting.  Last 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”, explained Chris Croce, Technical & Safety Specialist at National Grid’s Eakring Training Centre.

Already experienced in advanced simulation, National Grid has Virtalis, Europe’s leading Virtual Reality (VR) company, as its technological partner.  National Grid UK has installed an ActiveWall into its Training Centre and also has an ActiveMove portable system for Road Shows, Recruitment Fairs and Site Visits.

The Virtalis 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”, said Croce.  “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 a 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.

“We’re also finding that the next generation of engineers is completely natural around computers.  Even VR doesn’t phase them.  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.”