Teaching Industry 4.0 in the Metaverse

Trainers using the metaverse to help executives learn to lead the factories of tomorrow, and the world’s biggest companies are starting to buy-in.

To train for the future of manufacturing, companies can’t rely on the teaching methods of the past. Applications of virtual reality (VR) and the metaverse are opening new frontiers for immersive learning experiences, and industries such as manufacturing are reaping the rewards.

Since travel is expensive and time-consuming, and classrooms can be limited in scope, virtual reality (VR) offers a promising alternative to facilitate rich, personal interactions using digital tools.

“The goal is not to replicate real life, but to extend it,” explains Gemba CEO, Nathan Robinson. Gemba delivers executive training across industry applications using a VR-based platform. With their masterclasses, the company aims to take advantage of the metaverse, as opposed to simply digitizing what would be done in an in-person classroom.

Welcome to the Metaverse

One of the company’s most popular classes is Leading the Factory of the Future, co-led by Dr. Frank Piller. In the masterclass, Piller leads C-suite executives across industries through establishing and running manufacturing facilities in the era of Industry 4.0.

Piller is a leading expert in innovation management and the Chair of the Institute for Technology & Innovation Management at RWTH Aachen University. To date, he has taught the future factories masterclass more than 20 times, both in-person and in the metaverse. “Now, we will never go back to traditional teaching,” said Piller, describing the course’s transition to VR.

Prior to being transferred over to the Gemba platform, Piller’s class was delivered in-person, and saw participation from C-suite executives across the globe. When asked about the transition process, Piller explained that in many ways teaching in the metaverse is easier than over Zoom. For Piller, instruction is more natural and allows for more engaging personal interactions than a Zoom call. Where some participants and instructors might consider all virtual teaching options equal, Piller explained that was far from the case. The type of interactions and discussions he witnesses in the metaverse are simply not possible in a standard video call.

Piller also finds that many participants have little to no experience with the metaverse, so at least for Gemba, they rely on user-friendly Oculus hardware and a 30-minute orientation session to help executives get the most out of the masterclass. With this small upfront investment, Piller sees a high degree of engagement with participants who can focus on the content as opposed to the technology.

The Best of Both Worlds

When transitioning the in-person class to the VR platform, the goal was to ask, “what is meaningful in VR?” So, instead of the class being about VR or the metaverse, it focuses on using the unique platform to deliver a one-of-a-kind teaching environment.

Piller says the goal is not to simply move their in-person class to a virtual platform, but to truly teach in a way that is not possible in traditional courses. With the Gemba platform, these types of classes can combine digital tools with live interactions to better instruct on leading large-scale companies of the future.

One interesting aspect of the Gemba platform is their approach to avatars in the metaverse. For the first phase of their masterclasses, the focus was on the course design and delivery, with significantly less emphasis put on the avatar design. As the VR system is wireless, the course relies on graphics limited by a smartphone, as opposed to a wired, computer system. So, avatars needed to be simple enough for wireless delivery to allow for more focus to be put on the VR setting. In their second phase, they adopted the Meta avatars for the platform, and soon they will be rolling out a third phase that allows additional customization options for participants. Piller explained his preference for simple avatar design, as it helps to eliminate bias and encourage participants to focus on the content and discussions. However, he also envisions that generative AI will continue to improve avatar technology over the coming years.

One of the most significant benefits of the metaverse over conventional virtual courses is the truly immersive learning environment. Unlike with a Zoom-based course, participants cannot access or be distracted by a second monitor or their smartphone. Participants are left with no choice but to provide their undivided attention to the course material, discussion, and tasks. Plus, activities can be more physical, like “jumping into a box” to select an answer or opinion to a question, as opposed to simply checking a survey box that pops up on a Zoom call. Or participants can “walk” along a line to illustrate the degree to which they agree or disagree with a statement. All of these interactions can be paired with 3D video and instruction that lends to an immersive training experience.

A Transformational Start to the 2020s

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic irreversibly altered our day-to-day lives. Robinson noted that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of certain technologies that previously received a great deal of pushback. Prior to the pandemic, many companies were insistent that employees were not capable of working from home. However, once it became a necessity for safety, a massive shift was rapidly adopted to transform the everyday working experience.

One excellent example of this is the adoption of the metaverse. Gemba’s platform existed before the pandemic, and many investors were skeptical in the early days that C-suite executives and large corporations would ever adopt such a training system. For Robinson, he believes the shift in 2020 saved at least five years in terms of the pushback to VR. But the Gemba masterclasses, including Piller’s course, were already looking beyond 2020, to deliver a method of instruction which was simply not possible in an in-person setting. The goal was to provide a training system that would always be preferable to traditional, in-person courses.

“Transformation is not about technology; it’s about people,” explained Robinson. VR represents the opportunity to experience awe-inspiring learning experiences that still center human narratives. With VR, you can travel anywhere in the world, bring in a any global leader in a given field, and enforce an immersive environment.”

Training to Meet Industry 4.0

Now, global clients such as Coca-Cola, Johnson and Johnson, and Caterpillar are using the Gemba platform and masterclasses to deliver safety training, leadership programs, and advanced manufacturing instruction for employees at all levels. One benefit is the ability to rapidly deliver new training programs at scale, with no travel required. For Piller’s course, the metaverse makes it possible for participants to receive guest instruction from multiple leaders in next-generation manufacturing, including Porsche, Bosch, and Siemens. Porsche, for example, leads a session on data-driven decision-making in Industry 4.0.

One final benefit of teaching in the metaverse is the reduced environmental impact. Where traditional courses would see participants fly from all over the world to attend a three-day event, now people can join virtually from their own home. Robinson noted that on average, Gemba courses saved one ton of carbon dioxide per person, per masterclass, over the course of one year. So, not only can training be rapidly deployed, but it can assist with meeting sustainability metrics.

Although it seems the COVID-19 pandemic may have sparked a shift to virtual training offerings, Gemba seems to be standing out from the crowd by simply using the metaverse as a tool to deliver their training at scale. With recent successes, it will be interesting to see where the next phase of the platform takes the company and how the metaverse will continue to shape training at all levels of manufacturing.