North Carolina’s Pitt Community College Uses VRTEX® 360 to Introduce Basic Welding Skills Before Students Enter the Actual Welding Booth
At Pitt Community College in Eastern North Carolina, the shortage of skilled welders combined with aftershocks from the area’s challenged economy have created a perfect scenario: rapidly growing enrollments in the school’s welding associate’s degree and certification training programs.
“We’ve had a tremendous surge in welding enrollments for at least the past couple of semesters,” notes Roy Lanier, welding department chair at the college, based in Winterville, North Carolina. “Right now we have more than we ever have had – 230 students for the spring semester, and that’s not including students enrolled in our high school vocational education and tech prep training programs.”
The college, which has an annual enrollment of roughly 10,000 students, offers two-year college transfer, two-year technical and one-year vocational degrees, as well as short-term certificate programs and extensive continuing education programs. It serves one of every seven adults in the county each year and is a leader in local workforce training, ranging from basic skills updating to high-tech coursework designed for small businesses and new and expanding industries.
Pitt’s welding technology curriculum provides its diverse student base with a sound understanding of the science, technology and applications essential for successful employment in the welding and metal fabrication industries. The surrounding region offers a variety of welding career options, including heavy and light industrial, job shop work and construction. Because Pitt County is less than 90 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the area also has a number of boat fabrication facilities.
“For years we have had a shortage of skilled welders,” Lanier notes. “Some of this is because the needs of our local industry are so different and widespread. Local construction work requires MIG, stick and TIG skills, while the production section relies heavily on just MIG.”
Consequently, the school’s welding degree program, as well as its related certification programs cover stick (SMAW), TIG (GTAW), MIG (GMAW) and pipe welding. Because the needs of the local industry, not to mention the college’s student base, are so diverse, Lanier looked into adding a virtual reality arc welding trainer as a tool to not only get existing students introduced to the fundamentals of all types of welding before actually going into the welding booth, but also to introduce potential new students to the welding industry.
He immediately was sold on Lincoln Electric’s VRTEX® 360 virtual reality arc welding training system and acquired a unit for the school. The VRTEX® 360 is a VRAW™ (Virtual Reality Arc Welding) training solution that provides a “virtual” hands-on training experience that allows students to complete more passes than traditional training.
The unit feeds computer-generated data to a VR Welding Helmet equipped with internal monitors. Welding technique variables data are provided by sensors in the VR Welding Gun or VR Stinger. Students can practice in a variety of virtual reality welding environments, including simulated welding booth training or field welding applications such as a construction site or desert base.
Lanier keeps the VRTEX® 360 unit in the school’s 53-foot mobile welding lab and uses it both in his teaching and in new-student recruitment efforts.
“I initially wanted to use the VRTEX® 360 as a recruiting tool,” Lanier explains. “Some of our local high schools don’t have any sort of welding program, so the kids aren’t familiar with welding as a career option.
“We use the VRTEX® 360 when we have tour groups come through the shop because we’ve learned that live projects with sparks and heat can get the kids jumping around and hollering. With the virtual reality program, they can get the feel of being right there and see how it’s done. It really works.”
The same holds true for new welders entering the college’s welding programs, whether they are on the associate degree track or are going back to school for additional training and certification. Lanier has connected the system to a projection screen on the wall of the mobile unit, which allows all students in a class to watch what their classmate using the VRTEX® 360 is doing; it offers an excellent opportunity to teach a lesson, according to Lanier.
“You can point out the welding deficiencies to everyone watching and spend time critiquing the work as a group,” he says, adding that all students get a chance to demonstrate their skills on-screen in addition to serving as critics. “It’s hard for everyone to see the demonstration on the unit’s built-in monitor in a classroom setting with multiple students, but when you project it onto a 4 ft. x 5 ft. screen, it can really point out what’s going on.”
The fact that the virtual reality system provides real-time welding technique feedback similar to a video game also is a plus in the classroom, particularly for the younger students, Lanier says.
“It really builds a sense of friendly competition,” he says “Everybody starts to discuss the scores – who made the highest, who made the lowest. It drives people to want to improve. The younger ones love it. The older students, especially welders coming back for additional training, have to get used to it. It shows them the mistakes they might be making, which from a learning aspect is great.”
Craig Lane, a graduate of Pitt’s welding program, admits as an experienced welder that he wasn’t comfortable with the machine at first.
“I had to get used to the feel of the virtual helmet and equipment because I was used to the regular equipment,” he says. “But, once I did, I learned it does a wonderful job in helping you improve your welding technique like electrode position in the joint and travel speed.”
An additional benefit of virtual reality welding training is it creates no waste because no welding consumables, shielding gas or base metals are used in the process.
“In addition to attracting the next generation of welders, the training is eco-friendly,” says Deanna Postlethwaite, Marketing Manager for Lincoln Electric’s Automation Division. “Virtual reality welding systems save energy, reduce the use of costly materials and avoid creating waste.”
Such benefits have further prompted Lanier to look toward expanding the community college’s virtual reality training capabilities in the future first by adding the VRTEX® 360’s upgraded testing component and then adding more units to the mobile classroom. The system also has caught the attention of other community colleges.
“We’ve had visitors from other schools come to see how we use the system,” Lanier says. “And I’m taking it around the state to college fairs and promoting it as much as I possibly can. I really would like to get more into the high schools and get students introduced to the concepts of basic welding.”