DEME uses VR for real

There is a saying about how people learn and create memories that explains why virtual reality is such a powerful tool for training and design at DEME. It suggests we remember (about) 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear ... and 80% of what we personally experience. By putting crews in (what amounts to) real-life but simulated situations, DEME has been able to raise training and safety levels appreciably, while also improving the initial system designs. This immersion is not only training vessel crews, but also impressing clients that DEME has got a firm grip on every aspect of its business.

It only takes a moment to appreciate just how quickly the brain assumes you are dealing with the real thing when in a virtual reality setting. Indeed, the level of image detail (of the VR) hardly seems to matter provided the objects around you move in the way your brain expects them to move. And why is that? Well, it seems that virtual reality taps into what your brain thinks it should be seeing, and fills in the gaps.


Digital prototyping

While the concept of Virtual Reality (VR) has been around for decades, it is only recently that it has become more widely used in commercial areas such as gaming, the military, medical training and education. DEME, however, has been working with it for many years, and for good reason, as it has become an essential aid in training, as well as equipping crews to deal more rapidly with potentially risky situations. 

But DEME doesn’t just use virtual reality to introduce crews to safety procedures on new vessels, it is also using it to design its vessels and ensure that its equipment is fit for purpose and ideally conceived for the jobs in hand, before costly production begins. It is, after all, far quicker and cheaper to adjust a ‘plan’ while it is still just a plan than after a vessel has been built and put into service. In short, this ‘digital prototyping’ is radically changing and improving DEME’s design and development processes. 

VR in minutes (not months)

In the past, it used to take months and many thousands of hours of programming to translate a CAD model into a usable digital simulation. New programming technology however has reduced this gap to just a few minutes. In practice, this means that DEME is able to VR test its designs in the morning with the crews destined to use the equipment, make tweaks to the plans at lunchtime, and retest the revised designs with the same users and crews in the afternoon.

Koen Aerts, senior design engineer at DEME explains how the company has been working with various forms of VR for several years already. “We started experimenting with digital simulations about 8 years ago,” he says. “For years, we used a process called ‘digital twinning’ for our design and training. This meant creating a virtual model of our vessels and then viewing the result on a bank of screens. It was a good 2D simulation of the situation, but only up to a point. With advances in technology, we are now able to create 3D reality when we deem it necessary, as for example in the design and prototyping of 'Orion'.”

'Orion': a unique vessel with unique challenges

The design of DEME’s next generation DP3 offshore installation vessel 'Orion’s' lifting equipment has been fully tested with VR before construction and before the final design was confirmed. With its extremely large capacity crane, 5000 tons, that’s equivalent to the weight of water in 2 Olympic sized swimming pools, 'Orion' has been specially constructed for the offshore wind industry, as well as for work in oil & gas. With wind components, turbines and foundations getting heavier, and wind farms being constructed in deeper waters, a vessel like 'Orion' is now a necessity. Moreover, with 'Orion', DEME is moving from a jacked-up stable environment to floating operations continuously subject to wave actions and vessel motions. 

In order to successfully deploy 'Orion' on her first projects and immediately achieve DEME’s highest operational excellence and safety and sustainability standards, DEME has built a 3D digital twin. This virtual reality simulation has been used to fine-tune the precise position of equipment on 'Orion' and prototype work methods for the crew. It is also being used to train the crew in every aspect of operations, including safety procedures in case of emergency.

Crew test-drive the equipment

Each of the three main operating areas of the vessel: the bridge, deck and crane were created in VR, with all of the systems behaving just as they would offshore. By inviting the crew who will actually operate 'Orion' to test-drive the equipment before construction, DEME has been able to make critical changes in the design phase that simply wouldn’t have been possible in the past. And just like as during a ‘real’ project, a toolbox meeting is held to discuss every operation so that the bridge, deck and crane operators agree on the precise procedure.

Communication is key, particularly between master, lifting supervisor, ballast, crane and dynamic positioning operators. With DEME’s VR simulation, all sorts of challenging situations can be tested including inclement weather conditions, so that the crew knows exactly what to do in real offshore conditions. This means that the design, crew and engineering teams gain valuable experience before the actual project begins, which gives DEME a big advantage when it comes to time, cost, efficiency and safety.

Why is VR so important to us?

By using digital prototyping to do the job ‘virtually, before a project begins, we can sort out any issues that might arise well in advance. This may relate to a safety procedure, but could also involve an improved process and way of working. If there’s room for improvement, VR helps deliver it. By making everything on the vessel move and behave as it does in the real world, we can fully train and prepare our crews as to what it will be like. Do they have the right equipment? Would a different location for this equipment be better, safer and more efficient? What can and can’t be seen by the crew? In practice, if we have the crew do a job 20 to 30 times, we can see the areas where a redesign of equipment or procedure will help us do the job in a safer or faster way. With VR, we can see where the challenges are and do something about it up front. We can foresee what will be needed and not lose time during project preparations. This doesn’t only minimise our downtime in the harbour — after all, time is money, a lot of money, in our business — but it makes operations much safer as well. 

Improved safety training & awareness

Our investment in VR is a vital part of safety training and awareness. By putting people in a ‘virtual’ situation that reflects the reality, we can demonstrate how easy it is for accidents to happen. We can, for example, show them where not to put their hands, and why they absolutely need to stand in a particular position — a safe zone — well out of the way of the huge loads being carried by the massive cranes. And show why, for instance, it’s so important to grip a handrail when going up or down the stairs. In a VR world, we can even simulate people tripping up on the stairs to show them what it would happen in such a situation. We want everyone involved understanding what everyone else is doing, and what operators can see and what they can’t, especially when the equipment is moving. 

With VR we are able to put people in situations that would be impossible in the real world. We obviously can’t demonstrate what it would be like if something falls from the crane in real life, but in VR, we can. In this way, we can show what the crew needs to do to remain safe in case of an unforeseen accident. At DEME, while we are training people for the big things, we also want our crew to pay close attention to the small things too, after all they are as important for the safety of everyone on board.

There’s always going to be a first time for our crews, but our aim with VR is to make sure that the crew is as familiar as they can be with the equipment and the procedures as they can be so that they instinctively feel as though they’ve experienced what it’s like. We don’t want downtime for any reason; not just to save money and time, but it’s serves as a reassurance to everyone involved that we’ve thought of everything up front, and that our procedures and equipment are truly optimal for the job in hand. 

What's next at DEME?

Mixed reality for enhanced performance

DEME is all set to take its virtual reality one step further by making full use of the latest generation headsets to integrate 3D imaging into its training and operations. With Mixed Reality, the headset user can see both their surroundings and enjoy x-ray vision of the equipment as well. For example, a dredging vessel operator will be able to see the riverbed through the vessel and check whether the equipment is operating correctly. And crane operators will now be able to ‘see’ — with the addition of the CAT model’s digital overlay information ¬— what they are lifting, even if they can’t actually see it in real life because equipment is physically in the way. Not only is this extra and added viewpoint proving to be exceptionally useful in training, it also promises to transform live operations by giving operators a deeper and a more enhanced view on what’s going on.

DEME is also ready to use Mixed Reality headsets for remote assistance applications. This will allow a user, wherever they are in the world, to share his/her viewpoint in real time with an expert elsewhere in the world, and get the help and advice they need. The two-way interaction allows the user on site to stay hands-free and still be guided by the eyes and hands of the distant expert. DEME plans to use this technology for interactive advice in situations that require specialist medical and/or non-routine maintenance situations. In practice, this means the company can call on their highly trained experts as when required, even if they are on the other side of the globe. And soon, it will also possible to view step-by-step operating and maintenance instructions via the virtual reality headsets.