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VR Experiences Create Real-World Machine Skills

Michael Edlin
By Michael Edlin Technical and Project Support Specialist, Mazak Corp.

Virtual reality (VR) technology transforms a headset and software into immersive, interactive experiences, letting the user join in the view. For machine tool manufacturers, VR offers two important opportunities. First, it holds the promise of realistic training experiences minus the need for access to an actual machine. Second, it generates immediate enthusiasm for the manufacturing world in younger people.

In an industry facing skilled labor shortages, shops welcome any development that both attracts young people to manufacturing and makes training easier and faster—on expensive equipment where pressing the wrong button can have serious consequences. VR can also make training sessions more accessible from remote locations.

Recognizing the advantages of VR, machine tool builder Mazak has developed its own virtual reality training program. Currently in beta testing, the program requires nothing more than a headset, a pair of controllers and a laptop computer. In demonstrations, the system attracts instant interest from younger participants, some in their early teens, who tend to quickly master the VR equipment tutorial.

Mazak Virtual Reality Training creates an environment in which participants learn to repair, program, operate, disassemble and reassemble components, all in a completely safe virtual world. The current beta version of the training program offers a lesson in operating Mazak’s MAZATROL SmoothX CNC on a Mazak INTEGREX i-200 advanced multi-tasking machine.

The growing popularity of VR to support immersive gaming has driven the development of hardware. The recent boom in development of consumer VR technology has reduced costs and increased functionality. Wi-Fi connectivity and more-compact headsets have evolved the platform toward greater flexibility and power. In the future, VR may enable participants to go beyond learning the tasks involved in operating a single machine to running an entire virtual machine shop.

VR training may be new to manufacturing, but other fields already rely on its proven capabilities. Flight simulators enable pilots to practice emergency maneuvers and learn to operate new aircraft. Surgeons practice complex procedures on VR systems, some with haptic feedback that provides touch sensation as well as visual stimulation. OEMs have implemented VR training in the automotive industry, and skilled trades have benefited from this new instructional technology as well.

In its current form, Mazak Virtual Reality Training will offer instructional modules that the company eventually can combine into multi-option scenarios. Participants will be able to log in to specific structured training opportunities, take an introductory or a refresher course, and practice hands-on skills, all with graded feedback that helps them assess their progress. Mazak’s VR development and beta testing processes take place at its National Technology Center on the campus of its Florence, Ky., headquarters.

Ideal for Machine Training

The interactive aspects of VR make it an ideal platform for machine training, and Mazak has created VR scenarios that include material removal, parts finishing, maintenance and other tasks. As hardware and graphics capabilities continue to improve, the sophistication of the system likewise increases, showing even more detail from the CAD files that drive the visual content.

Mazak also plans to expand its use of VR training as a way to invite current middle or high school students to reevaluate their impressions of manufacturing careers and see firsthand how the field continues to advance. The technology holds immense promise as a means of increasing training resources and attracting new talent to an industry that desperately needs it.

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