A shortage of skilled workers entering positions in contemporary manufacturing has local educators expanding their curricula to generate interest in the field.
Researchers at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development (CUCWD) have created virtual reality simulations designed to provide real-world scenarios happening on the manufacturing floor for both K-12 and college students.
“We have to build a pipeline of workforce development and entice some of the younger students,” said Kris Frady, director of operations at CUCWD. By incorporating virtual reality into the curriculum, “we can appeal to the ‘gaming’ generation,” she said.
The virtual reality-based simulations are developed using game creation systems such as Unity3D and EON Reality, said Kapil Madathil, director of technology operations at CUCWD.
One of the system’s key features is the ease of building games focusing on the core application and functionality development, he said. The simulations are Web-compatible and enable students with Internet to access to use the program.
Frady said incorporating virtual reality simulations into education have many unique benefits.
The inclusion of real-world possibilities gives authenticity to a curriculum because students can immerse themselves in the manufacturing environment, she said. In a virtual world, students are free to experiment in safety under one roof.
Virtual reality environments created for the course include a simulated assembly line and a factory setting complete with drilling machines, lathes and forklifts, Madathil said.
Students will assume the role of an auditor, and identify and tag hazards as workers commit safety violations within each environment, he said. The safety scenarios are randomly generated at the start of the simulation and the user’s goal is to tag as many violations as possible within the allotted time.
Pickens County Career and Technology Center, Seneca Middle School, and several Pee Dee area high schools are using the virtual reality program, as well as more than 25 percent of the state’s technical colleges.
Frady said including virtual reality programs into technical colleges would expand the capacity of their labs by decreasing the lab time for each student. This in turn would increase the number of students using the lab, she said.
Because the CUCWD is a National Science Foundation Center, the virtual reality program is being used across the country, Frady said. “We have several sister centers who are disseminating the program to technical colleges in their area.”
As the industry expands and includes additional, complex technology, manufacturing jobs of the future will require a larger set of skills, she said.
The field will begin to open up and technical training will become more important as new devices on the market are built smarter. Given the established educational system in South Carolina, “we could see additional reshoring of manufacturing jobs because of the knowledgeable workforce we are putting in place,” she said.