Morris High School recently used money from their Computer and Technical Education budget to purchase a new machine. It includes a helmet, a computer monitor, and a plastic wand connected to a cable that leads to a shiny red cart. If it weren’t in the school’s machining lab you might think it was a really cool video game setup. While it’s certainly engaging to use, it’s not a game. It’s a $35,000 virtual welding machine from Lincoln Electric.
The Longview, WA, high school bought the machine to help their students prepare for a well-paying job in an industry that very much needs qualified workers. “We just purchased it so moving forward it’s probably an opportunity to let kids develop skills maybe before they start using the welder,” said Career and Technical Education director Jill Diehl. “It would be like an initial training.”
The virtual reality goggles housed within the system’s welding mask allow the user to see different virtual environments, including a skyscraper, a desert base, and a warehouse. The scene is then lined up with a faux plastic joint on a stand. Next, the instructor presses a few buttons on the touch screen monitor to calibrate the machine. The monitor displays the virtual environment inside the student’s helmet so the instructor can watch as the student uses the rod to “weld along the seam of the joint.” Once the student is finished, the program prints out a report on the student’s performance. Images of the student’s completed virtual weld, along with statistics on position, arc length, work angle, travel angle, and travel speed are also made available. The program also lists potential reasons for why the weld was imperfect, including melt through, excess splatter, and porosity, just to name a few.
“The scores they get when they perfect their skills on the virtual welder correlate really well to industry standard certification tests,” Diehl said. “That helps them know they’re getting the skill level that they need.” The virtual welder is also a big money saver. Each student may lay ten to fifteen welds a class, which translates into a lot of material, Lam said. Part of that cost is offset by donations of scrap material from Waite Specialty Machine, Inc., also located in Longview. ‘We could still run (the program) if we had to buy it, but it would cost a heck of a lot more,” Lam said. Another benefit is time savings for both the instructor and the student. Industrial technology teacher, Tim Lam, said that under normal circumstances it can take 15 minutes for him to give a student feedback on each of his or her individual welds. “Now we can have a 30 second turnaround if we want,” Lam said. “(They get) a quicker response and they know what they’ve done wrong.”
The school’s virtual welding machine is brand new. In fact, students gained access to it just last month. Lam allows two students at a time to book a time slot for use. It might still be some time before educators can see the machine’s ability to persuade students to consider entering technical trades. But it’s something they should consider, Diehl and Lam said. “Our focus right now is really kind of beefing up manufacturing and technical skills, because that’s where the jobs are,” Diehl said. “They’re anticipating a huge demand for kids with those manufacturing fabrication skills. As the baby boomers retire, our area, Cowlitz, Multnomah, Clark, they’re not even sure how they’re going to fill the need.”
They pay is also an incentive. Nationwide, the average welder makes about $40,000 per year. If Miller High School graduates become welders in their home state of Washington, they can look forward to a mean wage of $47,000 and tens of thousands of dollars more as they gain experience or become specialized. “It’s just another option,” Lam said. “If we look at the number of kids that aren’t attending college, they need to do something. If we can spark a little interest, we can help move them in that direction.”