Liverpool’s Virtual Engineering Centre Delivers £20m savings for Sella field with a cutting-edge mixed reality training tool

Leading centre of digital engineering technology, the Virtual Engineering Centre (VEC) worked with Sellafield to co-develop a unique mixed reality training simulator that precisely mimics the real-life working environment of Sellafield’s newly commissioned nuclear waste removal crane.

The initial challenge
After hearing about the VEC innovation facility and the trusted advisory offering of its team, Sellafield approached the VEC with a challenge to understand how virtual reality (VR) could be used to inform and benefit the design process of new facilities and the installation of planned capital equipment – such as specialist cranes – in the early development stages.

Sellafield was looking to ensure the safety of specialist operators of its newly commissioned nuclear waste removal crane, designed to scoop up and remove hazardous material from Sellafield’s 70-year-old Pile Fuel Cladding Silo. The building was originally designed to be permanently sealed, meaning innovative ways of accessing and retrieving the waste have had to be developed.

The solution
Experts at the VEC, part of University of Liverpool, met with the Sellafield team at the VEC innovation facility at Sci Tech Daresbury. A simulator was developed from existing Sellafield 3D design models containing information of the silo and crane. The VEC team integrated crane movements into the simulator, controlled from a chair with a built-in joystick identical to the real crane. The VR model replicated the real plant CCTV camera views and allowed the virtual cameras to be controlled exactly as they would be onsite.

Cross-functional teams from Sellafield’s training, operations and specialist human factors were active in the co-development sessions. The team developed the training modules, including compliance and focus steps before finalising the crane training programme. The documented outcome was then used to familiarise and provide confidence to key Sellafield stakeholders, including senior management, ONR (Office for Nuclear Regulation) and NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority).

Using an exact replica of the crane’s operator chair, control joystick and spatial working environment, together with selected digital tools, a precisely scaled immersive, mixed reality model of the crane and its operating waste-removal environment was created.

The crane training simulator provides a realistic environment for Sellafield’s operators, both visually and physically, including accurate manipulation and haptic feedback of all control systems. It mimics both the look and feel of the crane waste removal process and the environment in which the operator will be working, as well as including the potential challenges they may face within their day to day tasks. This allows operators to learn to ‘drive’ the nuclear waste retrieval crane in a safe environment before the full-scale training environment was available, ensuring greater levels of safety whilst increasing productivity.

The benefits
The realistic user experience of the training simulator builds operator confidence and has shortened the overall project delivery schedule. In the design phase, the operators could identify where visual aids would help them position the crane more precisely. These spatial and design features were added to the real plant during its construction. The operators fed back differences between the simulator and real plant to help improve the accuracy.

Being able to quickly identify project needs enabled Sellafield to make quick and easy changes before the crane went into manufacture, reducing resources used such as time and money, ideal for projects with specific deadlines.

The simulator is now at such a level of sophistication that the project team have decided to use it as the primary tool for crane operator training. In the long term, this allows the full-scale training rig to be ‘re-purposed’ as a second operation retrieval system, saving £20m on the cost of future waste retrievals.

The first time the real-life waste retrieval process using the crane was attempted, the operators completed the task of filling a waste container in just one day, a much shorter time than expected. The progressive training approach using the mixed reality simulator made this remarkable achievement possible. The operators at Sellafield are now able to undertake manoeuvres requiring a high degree of accuracy and space perception in the virtual world, before they advance to the real equipment and working environment.

With the crane being a completely new site installation, the simulator has allowed Sellafield training and operations teams to test different training approaches and assess, develop and implement the best training protocols and methodologies. Furthermore, the simulator has allowed Sellafield to train all of its operators on the new equipment before installation and potentially being placed in a hazardous environment.

The VEC and Sellafield collaboration has also recently achieved a highly commended in the Safety in Innovation category at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority Safety and Wellbeing Awards.

Lynn Dwyer, Head of Commercial for the VEC, said: “As a team we are extremely proud of this project. It showcases the in-house expertise we have at the VEC. It was a pleasure to work with the Sellafield team to produce a cutting-edge training solution that has reaped huge cost and productivity savings.”

www.virtualengineeringcentre.com