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Simulator Helps Collision Repair Students in Plymouth, MA by Rich Harbert, Wicked Local Plymouth

Virtual reality is shaping post-graduate reality for students in the vocational technical studies program at Plymouth South High School in Plymouth, MA. With the help of a state capital skills grant, students in the school’s automotive collision program can strap on goggles, grab a wand and practice the basics of auto painting without the financial and environmental costs of using real paint.

Plymouth South High School senior Paige Figueroa checks out her score after spraypainting a car door using her school’s SimSpray paint training simulator. Credit: Rich Harbert, Wicked Local photo

Their Simspray trainer is one of only 400 in use in the entire country. Most are in corporate-funded training centers. Some technical colleges don’t even have them. But the red machine in the corner of Chris Baker’s collision repair classroom is making a difference for high school students such as Paige Figueroa, who plans to open her own auto body paint shop after graduating. Figueroa is one of the nearly 30 students in the auto collision program whose school day revolves around her time on the simulator. “It’s like playing a video game,” she said. “You just want to keep getting a better score.” Baker and his automotive staff at the school received the simulator this fall and trained with the professional auto painter who programmed it. Even he could not score 100 percent, Baker noted. Students such as Figueroa are required to score regularly in the 80th percentile before they are allowed into the shop’s spray booth to work with real paint. Figueroa quickly mastered painting doors panels, scoring an 16

efficient 84 in a recent demonstration. But she needed to work on the trickier contours of a front bumper, scoring only a 59 in her first pass. Baker, who has painted thousands of cars, suggested ways she might improve the score, but left the actual method to Figueroa to discover on her own through trial and error. Every painter has his or her own technique, he noted, and the simulator provides plenty of feedback for students to draw their own conclusions. Under the goggles, the student sees the project to be painted along with the tip of the spray gun and paints by squeezing the trigger of the spray gun. The simulator’s computer screen shows the progress and records a slew of information about coverage, angle, speed, waste and dripping. The computer can be synced to white boards so an entire class can follow the progress. Or students can individually monitor their technique. The simulator cost $57,000 and was paid for by the state capital skills grant program that looks to encourage students to pursue careers in emerging trades with high demand and good income potential. “The thing with virtual reality that’s key is that kids can learn all the muscle memory that it takes to paint,” Baker said. “There is a certain method that you use and a certain flow that happens, and that’s no different from throwing a baseball or shooting a basket or anything else. “The brain knows when you grab a basketball exactly how to position your hand to make a free throw. When you’re a painter, your hand knows automatically how to hold a spray gun, how far away to be and what distance to do it in an efficient fashion.” The problem most schools face is that teaching muscle memory can be expensive. Auto paint costs $60 to $80 a pint, so the district can really only use real paint when a customer is willing to front supplies for a project. “This sort of technology allows everyone to more forward at the same pace. You have to have a certain score to move on, and that score will say that you know how far away

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to be, you won’t get runs, you won’t get dry spots,” Baker said. The process is different for every student, Baker said, for just as there are natural athletes, there are natural painters too.

Different colors on the computer screen indicate where students have applied too much or too little paint while using the SimSpray virtual reality equipment. Credit: Rich Harbert, Wicked Local photo

“For some kids, it’s a week or two. Others work on it [for] the better part of the school year,” Baker said. “This allows them to work on it all the time and pick up with their score where they left off and just keep moving forward.” Baker said the simulator has

the added advantage of not requiring students to wait 25 minutes to let paint dry before adding another coat. With a slight change in color, students can apply coat after coat at will on the simulator. Baker and his staff are introducing the simulator to students in auto repair and auto collision classes to see if they have an interest in the field. Freshmen getting their first taste of the technical studies program use it as well during exploratory programs. Baker said the simulator is so successful that the department is considering looking into the purchase of a virtual reality simulator to help teach students how to weld. “These kids are going to be successful anyway, but what can you do to help?” Baker said. “I just look at it as making a good opportunity better.” We thank Wicked Local Plymouth for reprint permission.

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January 2019 Northeast Edition  

January 2019 Northeast Edition