LONDON, ENGLAND — Nearly 100 years after introducing its renowned distance learning courses, the National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim) has turned to video game technology to train a new, tech-savvy generation of flour millers.
Based on the same CGI software that underpins many of the bestsellers on X-Box and Playstation, the Virtual Mill offers students an online, “hands-on” experience of the milling process wherever they are in the world.
Transformed into an on-screen avatar, students can walk around the site, which includes a mill floor, testing lab, intake facility, screen room, packing line warehouse and meeting rooms, following each stage from wheat delivery to flour dispatch.
Alternatively, they can teleport to a specific area and click on an item of equipment in order to access detailed information on how it works.
The mill was developed by Chris Bullen and his team at Visit, an Essex, England-based tech company that specializes in creating remote working and learning environments.
“We use the same type of software tools for the Virtual Mill that are used in creating the majority of computer games,” he said. “However, while typical computer games cost millions to develop, the Virtual Mill has been produced on a relatively small budget. We’ve focused on creating graphics that are ‘fit for purpose’ in teaching the students, rather than total realism.”
Unlike many computer games that need powerful computers, the Virtual Mill runs on any typical PC over a relatively slow speed internet connection, making it ideal for remote areas without reliable online services.
“We’ve been doing this type of work for over 10 years with multi-national companies such as BP & Castrol,” Bullen said. “But it’s only in the last couple of years that the technologies — PC graphics, internet, streaming services and so on — have reached the point where it has become financially viable and reliable for broad business use.”
Bullen and his team worked with milling experts and made several visits to mills in order to understand the workflow and equipment used in the flour milling process. As a result, they were able to produce 3D models of the grounds of a modern flour mill, including a training center and the main equipment in the various buildings.
“The aim of what we’ve produced is that it will become an integral part of the nabim training offering, providing exercises and challenges where students can learn by exploring to find answers and putting what they have learnt into practice by solving problems in a 3D environment,” he said.
The Virtual Mill is just one facet of nabim’s distance learning course, which has enabled hundreds of would-be millers to not only take their first steps into the industry but progress to senior positions.
“We have a history of providing training for the flour milling industry and the Virtual Mill is a superb, 21st century resource that provides a unique learning environment for students across the world,” said Nigel Bennett, employment affairs manager at nabim. “Over the last 18 months we have expanded it to enable students to interact with trainers and mentors, and in the future we would like to see individual companies building their own private rooms for employees and guests. But the technology means the mill’s potential really is limitless.”
Despite COVID-19-related delays to the 2019-20 course session, the 2020-21 flour milling distance learning program is currently open for enrolments.
Go to www.nabim.org.uk/enrolments for further details.
Nabim is the trade association for United Kingdom flour millers. The UK flour milling industry consists of 32 companies and 51 mills that combine to mill roughly 5 million tonnes of wheat per year.