On the Record with Paul Kolenda

Paul Kolenda is the director of new product development at IDEAL Industries, Inc. in Sycamore. Photo provided by Kolenda.

SYCAMORE – Ideal Industries Inc. is making electrician apprenticeship a little bit easier with a newly developed virtual reality training program.

The Electrical Training Alliance has partnered with IVRY Technologies, a division of Ideal Industries Inc., to launch virtual reality training as a learning resource for electrical apprentices at Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee centers across the U.S.

The first installment of the Virtual Electrical Training program, which launches June 1, allows for immersive learning to develop skills as participants continue their training in the apprenticeship program. The VET experience uses digitally recreated Ideal tools to teach the user pro-tips of the trade such as wiring and installation techniques, how to use special tools and industry code requirements.

MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton spoke to Paul Kolenda, Ideal Industry’s director of new product development, about the VET program and how it will help train the next generation of electrical workers.

Milton: What is Ideal Industries?

Kolenda: Ideal Industries is a company that designs and manufactures products for the electrical industry primarily. Part of the research and development function that we do here is that we look for new technologies, new products that would bring value to our customers and make their lives easier. We really take up the approach of creating an idea, determining whether some of those ideas make sense as a product, and then we conceptualize those ideas and transfer those ideas to our business unit.

Milton: How was the VR training program created?

Kolenda: That’s really how this virtual reality product came about. We took an entrepreneurial look at a problem the industry was facing around training electricians, recruitment, along those lines, and we ended up with a lot of different ideas before we finally narrowed in on the idea of using virtual reality to train electricians through a new technology.

Milton: How will the VR training help electrical apprentices?

Kolenda: The VR is used to train electrical apprentices at training centers where these apprentices are trained. We basically will use it to supplement materials, the textbook, the lab. The VR essentially simulates an on-the-job experience. It simulates an environment where an apprentice can go through a task they’d typically be assigned to do. We have two approaches in this: a guided mode, or guided approach, where students are taught step-by-step, one-by-one, with tools and supplies, and then there is a test mode where all of the tools and supplies are basically laid out in front of you and then you need to complete the task that an electrician would do. After that, you’re scored and graded.

Milton: How was Ideal Industries involved in creation of the VR training?

Kolenda: Ideal came up with the idea, the concept of the product, and we took it around and got feedback on, got very positive feedback amongst partners in the electrical industry. From there, we began developing the product, which we are calling Virtual Electrical Training, or VET, for short, which mirrors the curriculum the Electrical Training Alliance teaches. Ideal is the creator of the software and we partnered with an outside development group to develop the application itself, but the content is developed by Ideal Industries in collaboration with the Electrical Training Alliance.

Milton: How will the training program be offered?

Kolenda: The concept of remote learning has been accelerated by the pandemic. However, the way we are set up right now, we have a partnership with the Electrical Training Alliance, and the VR is going to be distributed to ETA training centers in a lab type of environment in a classroom. … We actually have a plan to launch it June 1. It will go live on their LMS platform, and that’s going to allow trainees across the United States access to the VR training module. We had a pilot program at 15 training centers across the country. … Now there’s roughly around 300 of these training centers around the United States. It’s going to be made available to most of them.

Milton: Are you an electrician?

Kolenda: My background is mechanical engineering. I am a homeowner, and I have to do odd jobs at my house. This can help with the basic training for wiring, switches, outlets, three-way switches. This will allow that real-world experience and allow them to build confidence in their skill. Another benefit is that it will reduce material waste. When you’re doing this in a lab environment, the students are working with real wire, real conduit with whatever they’re installing. They would have to set up each time for each student and then tear it down after, resetting it every time.

Milton: What additional items or hardware are required?

Kolenda: We need VR hardware, and we selected the Oculus Quest 2 platform. That’s a standalone virtual reality headset that has the headgear and controllers. It’s wireless, so you don’t have to be tethered. The app is kind of like a mobile application that you download onto the headset. Everything is through the learning management system, the LMS: their scores, access to the training itself. Really, the only thing that’s needed is that hardware and the headset.

Milton: Is virtual reality an up-and-coming market?

Kolenda: The largest market for virtual reality is gaming, and a close second is training. It’s a way to train individuals in the trades. There’s a shortage of individuals entering the trade workforce and programs. There are more electricians retiring every year than there are coming in. Hopefully [the VR training program] will narrow the skills gap. It can be used as a recruitment tool. … The VR training is hands-on, just virtually. It’s a way to drive perspective students into the trades and better prepare them for their future careers.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.