Workforce education in manufacturing has traditionally been very low-tech: in-person teaching sessions, one-on-one apprenticeship, written manuals, and perhaps a video. But to keep pace with an increasing skills gap, some manufacturers are now turning to augmented and virtual reality to teach their workers new skills. A Purdue team has entered into a $5 million cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create an augmented and virtual reality experience prototype called Skill-XR.
“The skills gap in hands-on trades and emerging technology is real,” said Karthik Ramani, Donald W. Feddersen Distinguished Professor in Mechanical Engineering, and principal investigator for the project. “Today, one of the best ways to transfer hands-on skills is through the traditional one-on-one apprenticeship model. However, it is costly and not scalable. You lose both the trainer and trainee. Also, older workers are retiring, and it’s difficult to recruit younger workers to replace them. And when they are hired, it is challenging to transfer those skills and knowledge to the next generation. The skills themselves are also changing, complicating the landscape. Skill-XR is all about boosting that skill transfer in a timely manner and enabling it to happen anywhere at any scale.”
The “X” in “Skill-XR” stands for a range of technologies that includes augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and extended reality (XR). For example, a newly-hired factory worker may wear augmented reality glasses while being trained on a piece of equipment, and see graphics overlaid on the machine about how to operate the controls. The instant feedback upon performing the task correctly ensures that workers are trained quickly, effectively, and safely.
“In this generation, YouTube videos have become stand-in educators,” said Ramani. “People turn to YouTube to figure out how to tie a tie, change a tire, or cook a meal. We want to push that concept into the next dimension, so that it’s no longer just a 2D video on a screen, but it’s an augmented reality experience, that actually responds to you and gives you feedback.”