Virtual reality is transforming Koch facilities

Koch’s virtual reality training reflects growing trend in manufacturing

March 14, 2019

min read

Listen to this article.

Once a gaming novelty, virtual reality is happening at Koch facilities across the United States. From safety training to manufacturing processes and beyond, Koch companies are exploring this revolutionary technology to transform our businesses. The impact is clear.

Koch Industries virtual reality Flint Hills Resources

With the help of virtual reality equipment, Koch employees simulate on-the-job scenarios to improve preparedness and safety.

When employees at Flint Hills Resources' Pine Bend Refinery in Minnesota don their virtual reality (VR) headsets for training, they're in for a real lesson. "We wanted workers to experience a possible and potentially dangerous situation to get their attention, go back through the learnings, and then test their knowledge at the end of it," said Bjorn Olson, who leads technical training for Flint Hills Resources.

Through virtual simulations, employees can identify and respond to equipment issues to avoid potentially hazardous situations, understanding what's happening inside equipment. "You get teleported inside of a live furnace—1,800 degrees in real life. We can set you inside of there, you can visualize the fuel air mixture, that you can't in real life. And then you can toggle between what bad and good looks like," Olson explained.

With its goal of zero significant process incidents or serious injuries, Koch has found that virtual reality has enhanced traditional training methods. Where facilities like Pine Bend once relied solely upon the wisdom of employees passing down knowledge to their colleagues, they now have added VR to their toolkit. This new standard is already paying off, with employees’ training scores improving by as much as 20 percent. Most of those who took the VR headset for a spin improved their training test scores from their pretest, Olson says, while a majority of those who went through the traditional training did not.

[Read more about Koch’s ongoing commitment to improving safety]

Koch’s success is part of a growing trend, with recent studies showing that virtual reality training has improved retention and recall rates for workers—particularly for workers who require high-risk safety training. A recent study from the University of Maryland revealed that workers who donned VR headsets had an average retention rate of over 90 percent, versus 78 percent for workers who completed computer desktop training.

Results like these have led to increased worldwide spending on VR and augmented reality (AR), with 2019 spending projected to top $20 billion, according to an International Data Corporation analysis. Manufacturing and other industries are expected to outpace consumer spending on VR and AR technology, with $1.8 billion alone expected to be spent on training assets.

While the scenarios portrayed through employees’ VR training glasses are virtual, the results are anything but. For Pine Bend operator Jake Flett, the experience felt very real. "It was really easy to picture myself out there in the field," Flett said of the scenario, which featured a low oxygen reading in a fired heater. "I actually got so sucked into it after a few minutes that once the operator in the scenario started to make a poor decision, I actually tried to reach out and grab him as he walked to the heater. It just kind of tells you how life-like it really feels."

Beyond safety training, Olson envisions even greater VR and AR training capabilities for Koch facilities. As a former high school teacher and farmer, he understands the impact of visual learning for mastering skills and managing resources.

"How are we building the neuropathways to make these trainings stick? How many times did we sit in a lecture hall and we didn't really interact with the content? Virtual and augmented reality now allows workers to empathize and interact with the content," Olson said.

Koch Industries virtual reality Flint Hills Resources

Companies across Koch Industries are looking for new applications for virtual reality and augmented reality technology.

Looking ahead, Olson is leading an initiative working toward the creation and implementation of a virtual hologram image overlay of process equipment—a form of augmented reality—so that employees can avoid getting close to the hazard. Koch is looking at growing the capability not only within its businesses, but also within the energy industry.

"Safety is not a competitive advantage; it’s something we all can share to benefit everybody,” Olson added. “Everybody can be safer.”