Sandburg Gets $90K State Grant for New VR Welding Simulator

GALESBURG — Students in Carl Sandburg College’s welding program are used to wearing a helmet while they work. Thanks to a state grant, they’ll also be able to learn the trade while wearing a headset.

Sandburg recently was awarded a grant from the Illinois Community College Board that will be used to purchase a state-of-the-art welding training simulator, giving students experience in a controlled environment and providing cost savings for the program.

Sandburg was one of 12 community colleges in the state that received funding to implement virtual reality equipment and software into existing career and technical programs. Sandburg’s $89,509 grant will go toward purchasing a VRTEX 360+ dual user virtual reality welding simulator.

The mobile VR unit is set on casters and has two adjustable towers, allowing two students to get hands-on training at the same time and practice at different eye and hand levels. It provides a realistic simulation of the look, feel and action of actual guns and torches, even recreating sparks, slag, grinding and weld cooling.

“Right now, our students go in the shop and they're at the table in their welding booth. They get very used to welding at eye level and chest level,” said Ellen Burns, dean of career and technical education. “With this, you can adjust the towers to replicate different heights and angles.”

The simulator tracks and scores weld parameters, including work angle, travel angle, travel speed, distance and position. The unit also features a virtual bend test that provides instant results and shows students what caused a weld to pass or fail.

Its demo, replay and lesson modes help instructors and welders look back at their work to identify what went wrong or well. The simulator also includes a curriculum package with lesson plans, faculty resources and a student workbook. In addition, the machine includes activities that are required components for students to achieve a variety of welding certifications through the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3). 

The simulator also ensures that newer students — or even someone with no welding experience who may be interested in learning — can do work without fear of accident or injury.

“Being able to offer this type of technology to current and potential students is a great benefit to our program,” Sandburg manufacturing technology instructor Ian Milligan said. “It’s realistic, it’s versatile and it gives students the opportunity to hone their skills in a safe way while getting feedback from the simulator and from their instructor. I know this is something that our students are going to love using.”

Sandburg currently has two simulators for students to use, but both are closing in on a being a decade old. The new system is easier to transport and set up than the existing ones, and it will provide more assessment reporting and tracking information.

An added benefit is that the simulator will reduce the amount the college spends on physical material for the program. Much of the metal Sandburg uses for its welding program is donated by industry partners, but the college also purchases its own material for capstone projects. With the simulator as an option, students can have the peace of mind to practice their craft without concern of how much material they’re using. The new system can even display the savings of material consumption.

“With the cost of raw materials that are increasing in the manufacturing environment, this is going to be very beneficial to us because of that cost-savings piece,” Burns said. “When we purchase metal, we aren’t creating a product, selling it and profiting from it like an industry would be. So, it's a little different when we look at purchasing metal. It's not going to eliminate the need to get under the hood with a real welding gun, but it helps you build skills in a cost-effective manner.”

The college hopes to implement the simulator into the program for students to use later this semester. It also intends to use it at recruitment events, trade showcases, youth camps and open houses for students interested in the program or learning more about it.