Southern Maine Community College has opened a new virtual welding lab that allows students to perform welding exercises on welding simulators while learning valuable skills to advance or launch their careers.

The simulation lab, located on the college’s Midcoast Campus in Brunswick, allows students to practice their welding skills virtually on any of 10 welding simulation machines that can enhance their learning experience while saving on material costs. It is the first of its kind in the Maine Community College System.

A student uses one of the welding simulators in Southern Maine Community College’s new virtual welding lab. Courtesy photo

“These machines take the mystery out of how students are performing because their work is measured and they can see the results on a large screen right in front of them,” said Jim Whitten, SMCC’s dean of workforce development, in a Nov. 10 news release. “The simulators provide immediate feedback, allowing instructors to help students with their welding angle, arc length, speed and other elements in a good weld.”

Southern Maine Community College offers welding classes through its workforce training programs, primarily in partnership with businesses in need of skilled employees. The college also offers welding classes in its career skills programs and for academic credit.

The welding simulators in the virtual welding lab are known as VRTEX 360+ virtual reality welding trainers, manufactured by Lincoln Electric.

When using the machines, students wear virtual reality headsets that create a scenario with true-to-life welding sounds, molten metal, sparks and grinding while they perform welding maneuvers. When students are done with a welding exercise, the machines grade their welding technique while also recording how much material they use on every weld. The welding drills can also be replayed so students and instructors can identify what went well and wrong.

According to the news release, the machines save on costs because students aren’t wasting raw materials when first learning how to weld.

Welding instructor Penni Barbeau demonstrates on a welding simulator. Courtesy photo

Jared Ambs, of Brunswick, used the machines for the first time this week as a student in SMCC’s Manufactured Technician Training program, which is offered in partnership with General Dynamics Bath Iron Works.

According to the email, Ambs “was impressed he could learn about different types of welds, weld angles, speeds and other welding elements on the machines.”

Ambs had a low score on his first virtual exercise, but brought his scores up into the 80s and low 90s (on a scale of 0-100) in a short time.

“I’ve never welded before, so it was good to get an idea of what I’ll be doing and how welding works,” Ambs wrote. “It’s a pretty neat system.”

Southern Maine Community College welding instructor John Gallagher said students take what they learn on the virtual machines and apply it when using real welding machines in SMCC’s welding lab. Students, he said, are motivated to learn on the virtual machines.

“They love it,” Gallagher said in the email “It’s geared to operate like a video game, and the younger generation understands video games. I don’t think it gets any better than this.”

The machines were paid for using a $296,000 grant from the Maine Community College System.