Scott Miner’s students leaned in. He fired up the torch.
Miner was doing a welding demonstration on a skyscraper in San Francisco. The building was just about ready to have some plumbing installed. All his students were crowded around.
The city noises were rampant, and the bay breeze was chilling. They looked down and saw the rest of the construction team scooping up some dirt. Miner put a cloth down on the welding table to rest his arm and assumed his position.
“Now watch out for those sparks. You don’t want to get burned,” the instructor told his students with a smile.
Miner and his class weren’t really in San Francisco. They were in the 800 building at Las Positas College. Miner wasn’t demonstrating on actual plumbing pipe and it was actually pretty warm in the room. He was teaching the students how to work the welding program’s new toy.
The VRTEX 360, made by Lincoln Electric, is a virtual welding experience machine that trains would-be welders through video reality simulation. This state-of-the-art training machine is giving the welding program a boost to the next level.
This high-tech machine makes the learning process more efficient for LPC students. Instead of actually firing up a torch and collecting metals and other materials to practice with, the VRTEX allows students to get the same experience virtually. It features a torch, mask and the option to choose from several different work environments like a desert military camp or a high-rise structure.
As the user moves their head, the simulation moves as well, making a realistic welding experience for the student.
“And the learning is so rapid, since you don’t have to gather more materials to practice on,” said Scott Miner. “You can simply regenerate the welding sample by pushing the restart button.”
After the student has finished a weld, the computer gives feedback on the quality of the weld on the basis of speed, distance and defects. A defect in the welding world is a weld that didn’t do its job of holding the two pieces of metal together.
An example of the weld review the VRTEX360 gives as feedback. Photos courtesy of Tami Shephard.
This modern upgrade fits the welding program’s approach by giving students a quick, practical education. It also goes along with the school’s overall plan of providing quality while also reducing LPC’s impact on the environment.
The VRTEX 360 has an option called the WELDOMETER, which tracks how much base metal and gas has been saved.
The welding department acquired the VRTEX 360 in the spring 2014 after an equipment request. The unit retails for about $40,000.
While an actual welding unit would have cost the department $10,000, Miner says this decision was money well spent.
“We’ve saved about 400 pounds of base metal with only 11 minutes of welding time,” said Scott Miner. “Over time, this thing is going to pay for itself.”
Two buckets filled with scrap metal left over from practice welds. Although actual welding practice is necessary for job experience, the VRTEX 360 allows students to train without wasting practice material. Photo courtesy of Mitchell Mylius.
The equipment is proving itself to be cost sufficient. Not only that, but it has proved itself to produce certified welders efficiently.
In 2010, Iowa State University’s welding department linked up with Lincoln Electric and conducted a study including 22 students. Eleven participants were trained the traditional way, while the other 11 were trained traditionally half the time and virtually the other half of the time. Each participant was trained with 80 hours over the course of two weeks.
Of the four different certification categories tested, the group who trained virtually saw an increase of 41.6 percent over the group who trained traditionally. And because of the time it takes to set up and restart practice welds, the virtual group saw a decrease of 23 percent in overall training time.
Over the course of those two weeks, each student saved $243.68.Multiplied by 11 students, the total savings equate to more than $2,500, according to the study.
James Weston, LPC Lab Technician in the welding department and former student, explained that this was not the only virtual reality system they tried. Other companies came to the campus to do demos with students, and according to Weston, the VRTEX 360 was the one.
“One of the systems we tried was basically just a dinky laptop,” said Weston.
But, the VRTEX 360 is one unit, and it can teach only one student at a time. And in a class of 25, that may require a lot of time.
“By the time the 23rd, 24th person gets to use it, they’re bored after the eighth or ninth has used it,” said Miner. “We’re trying to get every student to learn on it.”
“Now that we actually have one, we realize you may need two or three to teach a large group.”
Miner connected a projector to the VRTEX 360 on Oct. 13, to show the whole class techniques on how to weld. The students took turns practicing real welds at their stations and cycled throughout the class to practice on the plastic welder.
According to 18-year-old student and 4-year experienced welder, Kevin Schell, this equipment is great for the first-time welder. Jared Mendiola agrees and describes it further, saying how innovative the machine is.
“It’s the next step,” said Mendiola. “It takes the learning process from getting your hands dirty to learning how to actually weld, before getting your hands dirty.”