These days, deck equipment and lifting gear needs simulation testing before full development, Geir Roland of MacGregor told MJ. “Working on a scale model – even a detailed, 3D printed model - won’t copy the physics. You need try things out on a computer.”

However, MacGregor’s Arendal facility has boosted the ‘up-close-and-personal’ aspect of the experience with a Virtual Reality suite: this helps both trainees and designers get to grips with the issues.

Deck machinery design is “rather a complicated setup” said Mr Roland. Firstly, it’s not just a matter of loading the simulation with steel, loads, weather, wave characteristics and so on; the configuration of the machinery itself may create issues. “You can look at just one element alone and it might seem OK... but when you have the entire set working together as a whole, then you see the big hurdles you have to overcome.” This isn’t just a matter of simple hardware clashes: “There are other issues – for example, is there enough hydraulic flow for the crane to meet the necessary speed when combined with the other equipment? How do the electrical, mechanical and hydraulic loads affect each other?”

At Arendal, the C-HOW platform embraces the physics along with MacGregor’s extensive mechanical, hydraulic and electrical engineering libraries. Boundaries and logic are established and variables defined for numerous operational scenarios: together, this allows everyone to see what can go wrong when the machinery is pushed to the limits, without risking serious incidents.

The recent sophistication of Virtual Reality technology has added an extra dimension. Mr Roland explained that this new element allows for a fully immersive training experience as well as showcasing simulations of MacGregor products in action and demonstrating technical challenges. In fact MacGregor expects to receive between 70 and 100 people at its new academy every year – although portable, distant-learning programmes are in the progress of being developed for off-site use.

It’s a convincing show: “You can walk around the entire ship,” explained Mr Roland. Users can move around and turn their heads, viewing exactly the same things as if they were really on board: equally, the VR headsets also allow people to look closely at what’s going on, seeing the very fine detail of an operation as well as taking in the broader picture.

Further, these headsets are linked to large, wall-mounted screens which display a duplicate of the presentation inside the VR headset, very useful for an instructor monitoring and guiding the training sessions. It’s also possible to set up failure incidents and run the trainees through extreme scenarios without actually endangering life or limb: “If the worst happens, you just reset the simulation and then off you go again,” said Mr Roland. It’s worth hoping that the gamers amongst the crew don’t assume they have unlimited lives in reality.

However, he added that if a tricky deployment or lift is on the cards and the operations manager decides it’s worth it, the suite can be used to ‘dry run’ the task in hand, adapting the approach “and making corrective actions before trying it out onboard”.

But, he explained, the advantages of the VR is not limited to training or even operations: “The engineers can use the VR system to view the initial design, through reviews and throughout the design stages to get a product - or different products - working together in the optimum way,” he explained. “You can get into areas that you couldn’t access in reality” he added, affording designers a close look at heavy machinery in action and gaining otherwise unobtainable perspectives “which would otherwise be very dangerous”.

There is another, even stranger element to all of this: when asked if one day the equipment could be managed remotely, Mr Roland replied: “As we are connected to the cranes at present, theoretically you could, actually, control them from the desktop right now.” While he hurriedly added: “We don’t, of course; it would be far too dangerous,” he did admit that “it could be a possibility” given the future of unmanned vessels.

An interesting future indeed.

By Stevie Knight