Inside a darkened classroom in Mokena, Ill., a student lowers a face shield and braces a MIG torch above a small podium. The class hears the sounds of electric arcs hissing, while they size up the incoming weld as part of a contest to see who has the best “golden arm.”

A pipefitter apprentice at Local 597 performs MIG welding in the virtual world.
Photo: Tudor Van Hampton / ENR
A pipefitter apprentice at Local 597 performs MIG welding in the virtual world.

In a few seconds, the exercise is over, yet no sparks, heat or fumes—no real welding—actually happened here. It was all performed in a simulated world, a Guitar Hero for the construction trades.

Virtual reality is becoming the launching pad for young welders looking for a career that is constantly in a state of shortage. Despite the recession, welding jobs are red-hot. By this time next year, some 200,000 welders will be needed nationwide, and the cost to train newcomers will exceed $18 million a year. “There are people who weld door frames together, and there are people who weld 1,000-lb-pressure pipe,” says Mike Arndt, training director for the plumber and pipefitters’ union in Washington, D.C. “In most cases, all our welders are out working.”

For his union, Arndt purchased 12 simulators from East Hartford, Conn.-based VRSim, which builds arguably the most popular unit on the market. It is so well liked that Cleveland-based welding supplier Lincoln Electric quietly bought up the intellectual property last year and is partnering with VRSim to develop future training modules. “I think it’s a phenomenal training aid,” says Erin Justice, a technical trainer with Lincoln.

Pipefitters’ Local 597 received one of the units at its Mokena training center earlier this year. David Hintz, in charge of the welding department, says it could cut costs dramatically while speeding up the quality and quantity of qualified welders. “With all the luck in the world, it will get these guys out of the test booth and out into the field quicker,” he says.

Rookies say it helps them gain the muscle memory needed to control the torch’s angle, speed and depth, while experienced welders learn to break bad habits picked up in past training. “I love it,” says 27-year-old Devin Mettam, a Local 597 apprentice from Crown Point, Ind., about to enter his third year. “It makes me rethink things that I took for granted.”

Other welding simulators exist, but SimWelder is “the only one that is truly virtual reality,” says Nancy Porter, project manager for the Columbus, Ohio-based Edison Welding Institute. Developed under a U.S. Navy grant in 2003 by VRSim and EWI, the simulator was designed to cut training costs for General Dynamics Electric Boat, which builds nuclear submarines for the Dept. of Defense.

The original prototype employed a robotic arm which the trainee would control through haptic, tactile movements. Revolutionary as it was, it was too complex and expensive for the mass market, says Matthew Wallace, CEO of VRSim. He tasked engineers to improve design, which now features a video helmet, PC computer station and lifelike torch. Virtual “training wheels,” such as crosshairs and colorful arrows, help trainees produce X-ray-quality welds. Students use it to learn MIG and stick welding on plate; a TIG and pipe welder are in the works.

For young trainees, the world of video gaming is helping to bridge training gaps. “Things like the Wii make a difference because they pre-prime the market,” Wallace says. Since 2006, he has sold over 100 simulators, each costing $30,000 to $60,000. The largest order was a set of 20 that went to California’s Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation last year to help inmates get jobs after incarceration. Other clients include the U.S. Army, Volvo Construction Equipment and Shaw Group.