The nation’s first full-scale virtual reality diesel engine at FVTC in Wisconsin is changing industry perceptions.
The nation’s first full-scale virtual reality diesel engine at FVTC in Wisconsin is changing industry perceptions.

What really makes our modern American lifestyle possible?

Are you thinking it's the latest app or fresh online software that connects consumers to hot deals? It's what gets those hot deals across America.

In fast-paced America we nab what we need on the go or click “submit order” as part of our daily, yes somewhat selfish, grind. Our grab-and-go lifestyle takes a front seat in importance over the products we pile in the back seat in appreciation of where they come from. So, what makes our take-for-granted, grab-and-go moments happen each day without notice unless something goes wrong?

Drum roll, please…

Diesel engines.

I bet that was not on your list of top 50 answers. Mine either. Maybe you were waiting for something like the latest app or fresh online software that connects consumers to hot deals. I mean, really, who thinks about delivering goods from Point A to Point B as long as they hit the shelves at Point C for consumers? When they’re not there, though, look out. Heads roll.

Let’s peel the onion back now and look deeper at the critical role diesel engines play in trucking. Two essential and interdependent challenges face the diesel tech industry today: a skill shortage and an image problem. Enter Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) in Appleton, WI, to tackles both of these dual dilemmas.

First, industry demands for skilled diesel pros continue to swell thanks to a robust economy. In FVTC’s backyard, for instance, you will find the nation’s 11th-fastest growing manufacturing sector over the past year and tops in the Midwest. Couple that with a steady diet of around three dozen job postings per month for full-time technicians (according to Wisconsin TechConnect data) in the region and we have a career crisis on our hands. 

Without skilled diesel techs tending to a transportation sector that operates 24/7, 365 in a thriving economy, consumers would suffer the most. The consistent labor shortage, which ironically has been felt even in recent down economies, goes hand-in-hand with an image problem. How do you make a career exciting when its longstanding perception consists of dirt, grunge, and grease?

Due to an innovative partnership with a local employer, the college’s J. J. Keller Transportation Center in the midwest is second-to-none. J. J. Keller’s commitment to specialized training for the transportation industry is realized by FVTC naming its state-of-the-art center after the company. It houses the college’s diesel, truck driving, collision repair/refinishing, and automotive training programs. In 2014, more than 25,000 square feet were added as part of a successful public referendum to accommodate growing demands from industry.

The latest innovation to complement the facility is a one-of-a-kind gem that fits Wisconsin’s rich manufacturing climate and also represents a first in the nation: a virtual reality diesel engine. Students in FVTC’s Diesel Technology programs can now troubleshoot an engine anywhere from any angle while getting a closer look at its inner workings like never before. 

The “floating” engine that can exist in places ranging from hallways to classrooms to kitchen tables responds to voice commands and includes a number of advanced vantage points to optimize a training experience. For example, the shell of the engine is removable by voice command, so learners can gain a personal view of integral operating parts like a crankshaft, pistons, valves, connecting rods, and more.

Thanks to cutting-edge design work of Tou Xiong and Josh Janikowski on FVTC’s Learning Innovations team, the engine is now part of the college’s Diesel Technology program curriculum.  Microsoft HoloLens® mixed reality technology makes it possible to personalize the learning experience for students and faculty together.

Virtual visualization of the six-cylinder Cummins ISX model engine gives instructors a better augmentation of classroom theory. Students can now apply troubleshooting skills in a visual learning capacity that serves as a bridge between lecture and under-the-hood instruction. The virtual engine puts a student inside the motor to live and breathe its functionality. That level of detail is unprecedented in the industry.

The technology might just be the ticket to both make a dent in the industry for more techs and rejuvenate the field’s brand. FVTC Diesel Tech Instructor Jay Duca originated the idea for the engine. He believes the technology will also get people excited about choosing this field as a career path.

Building career passion for the diesel tech sector requires fresh thinking, too, to go along with such extraordinary technology. A local industry expert revealed that 85% of all diesel trucks with the latest technologies (which include the latest in electronic advancements and GPS systems) operate beyond a million miles without experiencing any breakdowns or major repairs if regularly maintained.

"Prevention" is another thing that’s hard to get excited about in general, whether it relates to health care, garage door maintenance, or engine care. After all, what sells? A bacteria outbreak, a faulty door that injuries a child in the garage, or no beef in a hamburger joint versus healthy lives, safe garages, and industry on parade each day atop America’s highways?

At the end of the day, however, no news is still good news. It’s more sensational in the news to hear about people getting frostbite from being stranded on a stalled ski hill chairlift versus hearing about the 160-plus days it ran smoothly and safely. We hear about disabled trucks when they cause accidents or traffic jams, but nothing is discussed regarding safe, reliable deliveries the other 364 days a year.

Maybe it’s time to bring ho-hum messaging to the forefront with a little spice from virtual reality. What if we took the video gaming craze out of family rooms and put the concept into classrooms? With some marketing strategy, a concerted campaign of sorts could conceptually move the needle from making virtual education as exciting as virtual entertainment.

The diesel technology students at FVTC can’t get enough of this augmented reality technology.  "It's one thing to hear about what goes on inside an engine, but it's another thing to take it apart physically and see everything in motion work together,” said Ethan Schenkenberger, a student in the college’s diesel program. “Everything is easier to understand.”

“They don’t want to stop working with it, even after class,” noted co-developer Janikowski. “The engine is positioned as a hologram, which makes learning brilliantly simple.”

On the road is where the engine’s been since implementation into the spring diesel 2018 curricula. Here is a snapshot of its recent travels:

  • Technology Day for J. J. Keller & Associates and its global partners
  • Amplify Oshkosh IT Culture Conference
  • Einstein STEM Expo
  • IT Alliance Career & Job Field Day at historic Lambeau Field
  • Arkansas Association of Trucking Conference

In addition, due to the ingenuity behind the diesel engine, Microsoft has accepted FVTC into its prestigious Mixed Reality Academic Program. So, here is a monumental engine that brings passion to learners who are at the forefront of changing the industry’s image. 

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