Beating a quality field to win a global mining major’s regional innovation award is another feather in the cap of Sentient IT and its founder Doug Bester, who started the privately-owned Perth firm back when virtual reality training was about as popular in mining as electric utes.
Now Sentient is getting (overdue) recognition for its largest ever mining VR training project, having just won a Rio Tinto Innovation Award for training modules used to get part of the 600-strong operations workforce at Rio’s A$4.3 billion Gudai-Darri project ready to safely and productively run the new mine.
The miner said its 17th and “most technologically advanced iron ore mine” in Western Australia’s Pilbara region sunk about $3.2 billion into the local economy for goods and services ahead of the project’s official opening in the middle of last year.
Rio Tinto Iron Ore CEO Simon Trott said at the company’s latest Supplier Recognition Awards event in Perth that it had spent a whopping $8.6 billion with WA suppliers in 2022 – up about 73% since 2018.
About 160 firms nominated for nine awards, including Sentient, which took out the Innovation Award ahead of TS Global, Biologic and Pilbara Rail Maintenance.
“This was our largest VR training project to date and the largest number of VR modules created for any one project,” said Sentient’s Leonie Yann.
“We utilised existing 3D [engineering] models to create the environments and made a variety of modules spanning soft skills to awareness modules to technical process and dangerous activity training.
“Each of the modules had an accompanying computer-based training [CBT] module that presented an introduction and theoretical components, keeping the VR modules for interactive practical scenarios for experiential learning and to solidify information learnt in the CBT module.
“We also created computer-based flat interactive versions of each VR module to allow those that couldn’t perform the VR training to still perform an interactive scenario for the relevant training module.”
Sentient had a team of 18 working on the project from the end of 2020 through to late 2022. In all they created 46 CBT training packages, half featuring VR practical scenarios. For Sentient, which has grown strongly in recent years on the back of VR and gaming technology, and customers such as Rio, BHP and Fortescue Metals Group, it was a major project.
“The main difference in thinking for us was planning for the broad range of topics we were going to cover while still building them in such a way that there was consistency in their user experience and look and feel,” said Yann, who registered at the Rio awards night as Sentient’s chief fun officer.
“The best part was the collaboration we had between ourselves, Worley as the project managers and Rio Tinto as the end customer.
“For each module we worked with project managers from each company, a developer and learning designer from Sentient, and a selection of subject matter experts from Rio Tinto.
“For Rio Tinto, the challenge was designing training for a mine that hadn’t been built yet and that had a lot of new technology that no one had had a chance to use yet.
“So we had to work closely with the SMEs and ensure we designed the modules in such a way that allowed for modifications in the future when systems and processes were refined further after production began.”
Other Rio award winners included Kulbardi, Eastern Guruma, Tasman Power, Iron Mine Contracting, CSI Mining Services, Coregas, Brilliant Boton Australia and GBSC Yurra.
Global engineering consulting firm WSP said earlier this year VR could help mining companies improve planning and management during construction and commissioning, “saving time and money on operations and maintenance”.
“The use of VR in business has been around for more than a decade, but adoption has been slow. The main reasons are a lack of awareness in the marketplace, limited applications, and the high cost of hardware. This, however, is changing rapidly.”
WSP said mine infrastructure, including plant and process design, was complex.
“The very nature of mining means that sites are often remote, making them difficult for surveying teams, designers, engineers and project teams to access,” it said.
“Remote-site assessments often work on a fly-in, fly-out basis, making it expensive and difficult to coordinate access for multiple on-site teams during planning and execution. In addition, design teams are often located in different parts of the world, so coordination amongst disciplines is driving the industry towards using technology to maximise efficiency.
“Underground workings and surface infrastructure are often located at a distance, adding complexity to the mix. Even though 3D models are becoming the norm for designing infrastructure, 2D drawings and plans are still used for the planning and review process, requiring a high degree of visualisation skill from all parties concerned.
“As technology advances and companies become more knowledgeable, the potential for VR in mining and other industries is infinite.”