In a back corner of the computer-integrated machining lab at a high school in Longview, Washington, there's a new, hidden gem.
It might not look like much among all the other large, loud machines in the lab: on a table lies a helmet, a computer monitor and a plastic wand connected to a cable that leads to a shiny red cart in the corner. The whole setup looks like some sort of elaborate video game device.
But this isn't a game. This is a $35,000 virtual welding machine from Lincoln Electric, designed to help beginning welders learn the techniques and basics of welding. The Longview School District has recently purchased the device with money from the Computer and Technical Education budget in an effort to give Longview students a step up toward a potentially lucrative career.
"We just purchased it, so moving forward it's probably an opportunity to let kids develop skills maybe before they start using the welder," said Career and Technical Education director Jill Diehl. "It would be like an initial training."
The system uses a welding mask integrated with virtual reality goggles. Through the goggles, a user can see a variety of virtual environments including a skyscraper, desert base, warehouse and more.
The scene is then lined up with the material to be welded: on a weekday morning in the lab, a faux plastic "tee joint" was prepared on a stand. The computer monitor next to the stand displayed a program menu, and industrial technology teacher Tim Lam pressed a few buttons on the monitor's touch screen to calibrate the machine.
While a student is welding, the monitor displays the virtual environment visible inside the helmet. An instructor can watch as the student uses the rod and "welds" along the seam of the joint.
When finished, the program spits out a report card on the student's performance. Immediately available are images of the student's finished virtual weld, along with statistics on position, arc length, work angle, travel angle and travel speed.
The program can also list potential reasons for why the weld was imperfect, including melt through, excess splatter, porosity and more.
"The scores they get when they perfect their skills on the virtual welder correlate really well to industry standard certification tests," Diehl said. "That helps them know they're getting the right skill level that they need."
The system has the potential to save money on materials for the program, as well as time for Lam, who said it might take 15 minutes for a student to get feedback from him on each individual weld they complete.
"Now, we can have a 30 second turnaround if we want," Lam said. "(They get) a quicker response and they know what they've done wrong."
It also has the potential to save money: a student could feasibly go through 10 to 15 welds in a class, which adds up to a lot of spent material, Lam said. Part of that cost is offset by donations of scrap material from Waite Specialty Machine, Inc. in Longview.
"We could still run (the program) if we had to buy it, but it would cost a heck of a lot more," Lam said.
But the machine is brand new — students just gained access to it last week. Lam allows two students at a time to sign up for a time slot to use it. It might still be some time before educators can see the effect it might have on getting students to consider entering technical trades.
But it's something they should consider, Diehl and Lam said.
"Our focus right now is really kind of beefing up manufacturing and technical skills, because that's where the jobs are," Diehl said. "They're anticipating a huge demand for kids with those manufacturing fabrication skills. As the baby boomers retire, our area, Cowlitz, Multnomah, Clark, they're not even sure how they're going to fill the need."
An added incentive is the pay, Diehl said. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean yearly wage for a welder or solderer is $40,000 a year.
That number increases in Washington, where the mean wage is $47,000. And the 90th percentile of welders in the state can earn upwards of $67,000 a year. Wages continue to increase in specialized areas.
"It's just another option," Lam said. "If we look at the number of kids that aren't attending college, they need to do something. If we can spark a little interest, we can help move them in that direction."