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ECC program incorporates virtual reality

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Collision Repair and Refinishing Technology Program Chairman Bud Speight, left, watches as Bailey Elliott learns how to paint a vehicle using virtual reality technology at Edgecombe Community College.

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From Contributed Reports

Friday, December 15, 2017

Six years ago, Edgecombe Community College incorporated virtual reality technology into its Collision Repair and Refinishing Technology program.

Bud Speight, program chairman, was a traditional autobody guy. By his own admission, he was trained old-school, he worked old-school, and he always butted heads with new technology.

“I was a big skeptic,” said Speight, who worked in the business for a dozen years and has been teaching at ECC since 1993. “But I had to eat my words.”

In 2011, ECC became the first community college in the state to use VR technology in its Collision Repair and Refinishing Technology training, Speight said. And now, the college is looking at expanding the burgeoning technology into other programs, such as welding.

Students learn how to paint vehicles through virtual training without ever leaving the air conditioned classroom. The system enables students to practice paint gun distance, speed of the stroke, overlap techniques and other painting methods previously taught in a real, often overheated paint bay.

“My students love it,” Collision Repair and Refinishing instructor Kevin Strickland said. “A lot of the young people pick it up quicker; it’s like a video game.

“They actually have fun learning.”

But it’s not just the kids. Even older students like Satchel Vaughan, 47, says he loves the technology.

“It’s a really good system,” Vaughan said. “You practice on that, and when you get in the real paint bay, you won’t make as many mistakes.”

Instead of waiting for the paint to dry and sanding out the training vehicle for another student to have a go at painting, instructors can hit a button and the VR vehicle is ready for another practice run.

Strickland said there’s also less impact on the environment. The college went from using 50 gallons of paint per semester in training to about five gallons, thanks to the VR system.

Students in the Collision Repair and Refinishing Technology program at ECC can opt for a two-year degree, one-year diploma or three different certificates, one of which is available to high school students. Once they complete the program, Speight assures he has no trouble placing graduates in jobs.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the autobody repair industry is expected to grow by 8 percent over the next decade, and the average pay for workers is about $40,000 a year. Speight says that in North Carolina, the average pay is about $56,000.

Vaughan, who previously owned his own auto accessories store, said he’s excited about his new career choice. He will complete the ECC program in December, and he plans to work for a shop in Roanoke Rapids before opening his own repair business.

“It was great learning under Bud and Kevin, who have so much experience in the business,” Vaughan said. “But now I’m ready to get the experience firsthand.”

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