Visualising Metalcorp’s farmyards in virtual reality

12 Sep 2022

A demand for greater digital immersion 

Farming is one of the world’s oldest industries, with many of the processes that farmers use deeply rooted in tradition. This includes farmers travelling long distances to the closest supplier in the nearest town or wait for a once-a-year field day to have a suitable farmyard designed using pen-and-paper. As digital technologies become more prevalent, farmers now have an unprecedented appetite and expectation for digital-first sales experiences.

Metalcorp owned by BlueScope, design and supply livestock yards for cattle and sheep farmers. The business was keenly aware that traditional hand-drawn yard designs were time consuming for all involved. Farmers wanted a quick turnaround on their concepts. There’s a high margin of error as the drawings didn’t allow for a property’s geographical features to be included which may impact their practical application.

“Our newly emerging customers are Gen Y and Gen Z which is a demographic that grew up in the internet age. To ensure future market relevance, we had to acknowledge this important demographic change,” says Ken Khatib, Marketing Manager at Metalcorp.

To differentiate themselves amidst a highly competitive market and to modernise their design process, Metalcorp sought an innovative VR experience that could deliver customers a whole new level of immersion and intuition not possible before.

“Utilising the advantages of virtual world imagery, we wanted to show customers any product in our range and how it fits in a total system. We wanted to be able to position their proposed yard on their property, enabling them to walk through the system and assess its practicality all in a virtual world - that’s the wow factor. Our vision was for the Metalcorp trade stand at field days to have a farmers lined up eager to see how a rural product selection appears in the VR space,” added Orrcon Steel National Marketing and Innovation Manager Lester Kirkwood.

Putting designs on the map with virtual reality 

To realise their vision of a Virtual Reality rural offer, Metalcorp turned to Telstra Purple, whose deep experience in Cross Reality (XR) led to the development of a virtual farmyard viewer headset and web-based app.

“Our early conversation with Telstra Purple enabled us to see what they had delivered in the VR world for companies in various industries. We thought they could adapt their experience and bring that to our rural industry and provide us with a first to market offer,” said Lester. “The overarching aim was a commercial outcome. We did not want this to be a toy or something that sits on a shelf. That drove Telstra Purple thinking all the way and they delivered on that.”

A cross-functional team developed and delivered these solutions using design-led development and agile software delivery, combined with Telstra Purple’s own best-practice design methodology. The team was able to uncover and define Metalcorp’s business problem and user needs. This information was crucial in crafting a purpose-built practical solution leveraging the latest technology and tools.

This solution, called Farmyard Viewer, enables Metalcorp rural designers and customers to visualise three-dimensional yard designs on browsers on their desktop computers, laptop, smartphone, tablet, or VR headset. This allows Metalcorp to present their customers with a more natural, highly engaging visual experience.

Customers can now select a standard design on the Metalcorp website or request a custom yard created using the Farmyard Designer tool, a complementary design application supporting Farmyard Viewer. If any yard design feature needs to be changed, customers can simply brief Metalcorp, who then will adjust the design on the design app and upload the revised version to the viewer app.

Improving safety and reducing disruption through VR training

Another BlueScope owned business Orrcon Steel, was looking into virtual reality for induction and training purposes. A steel, tube and pipe manufacturer; Orrcon’s production floor is noisy and potentially dangerous environment, especially when reconfiguring machinery. Training, while critical, poses a challenge in production floor conditions and requires the steel mill to be slowed down for safety reasons.

Following the success of Metalcorp’s engagement in the rural space, Orrcon reached out to Telstra Purple for a Proof of Concept to digitise their training processes. They envisioned their solution to involve a VR headset and handset for virtual training—with the headset providing a 3D view of the machinery and the handset mimicking the weight and vibrations of physical machinery.

Telstra Purple’s teams worked closely with Orrcon to develop a successful Proof of Concept, which makes it possible to train new employees in 30 to 40 minutes instead of hours, all in a safe virtual environment. As a bonus, the virtual training doesn’t impact the steel mill capacity enabling the mill to operate at normal speeds therefore not impacting throughput and potential loss of revenue. This endeavour proved that team members can undergo training effectively in a virtual world—presenting exciting possibilities for the broader BlueScope organisation.

Impressive results to propel future innovation

While both VR projects were delayed by the pandemic, they had promising early results encouraging the businesses to continue discovering possibilities with Telstra Purple.

“We’ve had six to eight sales of yard systems using the Farm Yard Viewer in the last few months. These are significant sales value outcomes for our business,” Lester shared. “We’ve proven the concept, and we’re confident it will be an important part of our future capability and user experience.”

The VR solution has streamlined the buying process for customers—now that they know they can customise designs to suit their properties via a browser app, enquiry rates have been strong. Metalcorp is now generating numerous monthly leads for further review, importantly reducing the time it takes to complete a sale.

“It's actually sped up the process massively. If a customer sees it and doesn't like it, he sends it back, and we can change it within minutes. The process has gone from weeks to hours,” said Metalcorp Project Manager Ben Henry.

It’s a similar story with the rural expos and field days. Now, customers can see the design in-situ with the headset and have Metalcorp adjust it to suit. The design can then be drawn on the app and printed within 45 minutes. This provides a huge advantage for the company, with purchasing decisions now be made on the spot instead of weeks.

Collaboration and exploration were key to the success of the VR projects. New ideas were constantly proposed in brainstorming sessions, then designed, tested, and validated.

“Telstra Purple were easy to work with. You knew at the start what they were going to deliver. They delivered more than they said they would, because of the speed they worked at. It was great,” Ben added.

The critical lesson from the two projects is that using Cross Reality — whether virtual, mixed, or augmented — is an explorative process. Visible problems or initial goals are just the beginning. One idea will lead to another, and then another, opening a wealth of potential to be tapped.

That’s certainly the attitude of Metalcorp, Ken said. “We identify that the Metaverse is going to be a big part of our working lives in the next five to ten years. The Metaverse with VR is what we're looking at, and we’ve only just started exploring the possibilities for the future.” 

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