Dane Laughlin didn’t set out to be a virtual reality guru. It just sort of happened. In college at Wichita State University, he was working toward a biomedical engineering degree and medical school, but after shadowing a few doctors, decided medicine wasn’t for him. Unsure what to do next, he looked to his peers for inspiration.
“I realized that everybody I knew at Koch were super-high-quality people,” Dane said. He started checking help-wanted listings, looking for an internship at Wichita-based INVISTA (Koch Industries’ textiles, polymers, fiber and resin producer) that matched his major. “Environmental health and safety sounded close enough, so I applied,” Dane said.
The rest, as they say, is history. Dane, now 23, got that environmental health and safety internship, and he was hired on full time after graduating in May 2019. Almost immediately, he started working on a new virtual-reality program that is transforming how INVISTA trains its employees.
It started when the Camden, South Carolina, site wanted to revamp its spinning technician training, a skilled role in which employees wind molten fiber around a complicated system of spools to stretch and strengthen it. The training itself can be difficult, time-consuming, costly and potentially dangerous for someone who is untrained. One of the biggest challenges in training these employees is that trainers, such as Robert Ray, had to wait for a filament to break before teaching a trainee how to restring it because there was no better way to practice on the actual machine, or anything similar to it. And in order to get the machine running again as soon as possible, training sessions lasted only 30 minutes. New employees needed six months on average to reach proficiency. “It really wasn’t effective or efficient,” Robert said. “There was a lot of wasted time and frustration.”
Dane had been interested in virtual reality for a while, so when Camden asked if VR training was possible, he jumped on the idea. A VR environment is more conducive to learning. Instead of spending short bursts on a factory floor, trainees complete the simulation at a self-directed pace in a quiet room.
After extensive discussions with current employees, the team created a training simulation that incorporates visual cues as trainees “work” on the spinning machine. Check and information marks pop up to indicate what step comes next or warn that a task is incomplete. VR makes training less fraught because it eliminates the risks associated with untrained hands working on equipment using molten fiber and fast-moving components.
It took about 90 days to develop the VR simulation, and there were some bumps along the way. At first, the team thought trainees should use an actual “string-up gun” while practicing with the VR headsets in the training room at the Camden facility. “But then we realized that four people swinging poles around in a facility training room while blindfolded wasn’t a great idea,” Dane laughed.
The new system, which launched in November, has the potential to cut training time in half. One huge benefit is that trainers can teach a whole group at once. It’s also now possible to use one person’s mistake as a teachable moment. “It’s so much more nuanced,” Robert said. “You can show people that if they just tweak how they’re moving their hand 10 degrees, it makes everything so much easier. That just wasn’t possible when we were moving fast and yelling over the factory floor noise.”
The training has had some unexpected benefits. The VR platform turned training into a friendly competition, with employees wanting to be better and faster than their fellow trainees. That’s in part because the VR program allows the company to capture detailed, real-time data on how well each trainee is mastering the work. “In the past, we had no objective way to measure a trainee’s preparedness,” said Adam Brooks, INVISTA IT business systems analyst. “Now, trainers can see where individual trainees are falling behind. They can aggregate data to determine which steps are more accident-prone, and take steps to mitigate the danger.” The VR training also has cut the time it takes for current employees to transition from one machine to another, so it’s easier for them to switch jobs if they or the company need a change. Longtime employees have marveled at the VR training, with many joking new trainees “have it easy.” Those trainees, meanwhile, have a hard time imagining learning any other way.
Next up for Dane is an effort to scale VR training by putting it in the cloud, giving any site around the world access. Using a cloud-based approach coupled with a VR simulation is a prime example of Koch’s goal to encourage employees to harness new technology to evolve their roles and processes for the better, said Steve Daley, president of Koch's Market-Based Management capability, which is responsible for cultivating an environment of continuous learning and transformation across Koch’s worldwide facilities and nearly 130,000 employees. “Koch employees are using technology to facilitate learning and improved knowledge sharing to increase the rate at which we transform how work is done.”
This first VR program marks the beginning of a new chapter for INVISTA, now that the company can fully immerse a trainee, Brooks said. “We can run them through situations and scenarios, over and over again, without any risk and without any waste,” he said. It’s why the team now is developing more VR training programs for tasks such as forklift operation, as well as various procedures throughout the company’s many manufacturing facilities. In short, they want to turn as many costly and cumbersome processes into VR as they can to improve the employee experience. “We’re looking at all sorts of other potential use cases,” Dane said.
Meanwhile, Dane has been impressing spinning operators with his threading acumen. Recently, while visiting a site, he was challenged to thread a live machine, something he’d never attempted. “It was kind of funny because the whole way, the operator was telling me how hard it is to catch the thread to get it started,” Dane said. “I was kind of worried. But I had a very strange sense of déjà vu, because I’d never actually done it outside of VR, but I felt like I had. And then it was snip, snip, done! His jaw just dropped. That was pretty cool.”