Industrial Training with Video Games

Factory I/O teaches engineers how to troubleshoot factory floors by mimicking videogame UI design

By John Pavlus

When a tech-reporter friend first told me about Factory I/O, he described it as “The Sims for supply chains.” That’s not what the app really does, but it’s close. Factory I/O is industrial training software whose user interface was designed to emulate video games. Puzzle games, specifically. Well, one puzzle game in particular: Portal 2, the blockbuster sci-fi title about a clever human trying to outwit an insane artificial intelligence…inside an industrial training facility.

If the irony of this setup was intended by Factory I/O’s designers, they’re not telling. But the parallels make intuitive sense. When something goes wrong in the thicket of automated mechatronic equipment that festoons a modern factory floor, puzzling it out in person could be as dangerous (or, at least, as time-consuming) as fumbling around the test chambers of Aperture Science, the industrial lab that serves as Portal’s setting. Factory I/O lets an engineer or technician model a physical automation system in a semi-photorealistic virtual setting instead. The software can even connect to PLCs, the industrial computers that drive factory robots and other automated manufacturing machinery.

“The PLCs think they are controlling real machines, but in fact they are controlling the simulation,” explains Diogo Vasconcelos, a software engineer at Real Games, the Portuguese company behind Factory I/O. “Everything is a bit simplified, but you can still create a lot of different problems that you’d find in trying to automate a shop floor. You fine-tune your solutions in our software, and when it’s working OK, you can take that solution and plug the industrial computer into the real machinery.”

Here’s what the UI of Factory I/O looks like:

And here’s what the UI of Portal 2's “puzzle creator” looks like:

The two apps are quite similar: they both have a semi-photorealistic visual style combined with an interface that mixes direct manipulation of a 3D environment with a Photoshop-esque menu and file controls. “Factory I/O looks like a video game but has some familiar things to people that use Windows applications,” Vasconcelos says. “The point was to make it pleasant. Usually these industrial software tools have very schematic visuals that aren’t very engaging, and require a lot of technical experience to do simple things. So we looked to video games for inspiration, where the aim is to be very intuitive to use so the player doesn’t get frustrated.”

According to Vasconcelos, a first-person shooter game called Team Fortress 2 also informed Factory I/O’s visuals. The designers of that game (which was developed by Valve, the same game studio that created Portal and Portal 2) started out by developing photorealistic (for the time) graphics, but soon discovered that the abundance of visual detail hampered “readability” of the game’s character design:

That tiny armband looks very realistic, but it’s almost impossible to see.

Instead, the designers of Team Fortress 2 pivoted to a visual style informed by early 20th-century commercial illustration—“stylization with a purpose,” as they put it. The designers of Factory I/O followed the same playbook, but took their inspiration from Portal 2's environmental design (since Factory I/O has no “characters”). “The first approach we tried was very photorealistic, but there was too much noise in the picture—it was hard to identify different machine components,” says Vasconcelos. “To fix that, we went for a more illustrative style with high-contrast colors, rim lighting on components, and dark strokes on the edges, so everything is very easy to see.”

The result is a training app with a visual vernacular that young engineers and technicians can instantly grasp. “When you put this software in a classroom, the students can usually use it better than the teacher,” Vasconcelos says. Factory I/O is not meant to replace “real” engineering software like AutoCAD and Solidworks, but as a generation of students weaned on video games ages upward into the professional ranks, user experiences more like Factory I/O could become increasingly common—and even expected. It wouldn’t be the first time: football TV broadcasts look more and more like Madden NFL every year, and young quarterbacks even use the video game to learn their plays.

Why should the automated world of factories and supply chains be any different? If anything, these mechatronic systems lend themselves to video-game-like simulation even better than the squishy, messy realms of sports and entertainment. Factory I/O may not be as immersive and dynamic as the sci-fi-like “seeing spaces” that interface inventor Bret Victor imagines that engineers of the near future will rely on—but it’s getting closer. As they say in video game circles: that’s thinking with Portals.