The manufacturing industry faces unique challenges in the near future and they are looking to video simulation to solve their most pressing challenge – a labor shortage. As the baby boomers retire from the manufacturing industry, they will leave a gap in the labor force that will be a tall order to fill. A handful of universities and the U.S. Department of Energy have partnered to find out if video simulation is the key to enticing new college grads to the manufacturing industry.

http://tinyurl.com/crjc8q7Today’s jobs in the manufacturing industry will require educated, adaptable and fast-thinking candidates. Candidates that have strong backgrounds in STEM subjects are highly coveted for these roles. This collaborative effort seeks to leverage videogame-savvy college students who’s passion for math, engineering and science is only topped by their penchant for playing videogames.

Nuts & Bolts

The Avestar project—for Advanced Virtual Energy Simulation Training and Research—is now being tested at West Virginia University, and the backers hope to bring it to other schools. Students put on glasses to see images on their screens in 3-D, and they maneuver through the virtual chemical plant using a game pad—something like the controller for a gaming console— to get a feel for how everything works.

Simulators that put users in charge of virtual plants may appeal to college students raised on videogames.

Wesley Vassar, a recent chemical-engineering graduate, says his favorite part of the simulation was being able to peel the sides off large pieces of equipment—such as a reactor or a separation vessel—and see what was going on inside the machines.

“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to experience that in real life,” says the 22-year-old, who has a job lined up at the Chlor Alkali division of Olin Corp. OLN +0.04% in St. Gabriel, La.

Another simulation lets students take charge of the entire plant—in a way they’d never be able to do in the real world, where just pushing the wrong button could cost someone’s life. Students sit in a virtual control room and see what happens when they change variables, like closing a steam valve.

They can also practice responding to emergencies: The software can simulate a disaster and have them react, and it can record and play back their reactions.

Comfort Level

Simulators don’t replace visits to a real plant, but they do feel comfortable for a generation of students who are less likely to have grown up watching their parents fix things around the house and so lack some of their elders’ practical skills, according to Richard Turton, a professor of chemical engineering at West Virginia University.

Dr. Turton says he has to remind students when they use the simulators that they’re preparing for more than a game. One action inside a plant can affect hundreds of pieces of equipment—closing a leaking steam valve because it’s noisy and annoying, for instance, could cause a reactor that the steam feeds into to explode.

“You need to go deeper and you need to understand the process before you make that snap judgment,” he says.

Continue Reading: It’s Not a Job, It’s a Game

Ms. Gage is a staff reporter for Dow Jones VentureWire and WSJ.com in San Francisco.

Read more articles on efforts to excite students about STEM careers

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