Training in the Virtual Age

Okay, well, what will it be today? Excavator? Great. Get settled in the seat. Get a feel for the controls. Easy enough. Take a deep breath and relax. You can look all day long at that menacing wall of rock or the trench that needs to be dug, but that’s not going to get the job done. Instead, you turn on your machine, set some switches, and begin moving the stick, boom, and bucket. Get a big load, then move back and turn towards the dump truck where you want to take the rock. Blast! You pulled back too fast, and you’ve not only dropped your load, but you’ve also ended up in a large body of water behind you. Water is rushing into the cab. Fortunately, you can get out, but we hope you’ve brought your flotation vest. No? Sorry. You’re toast.

That was a nasty accident, to be sure, and you could have been hurt, or worse, but you weren’t. Lucky for you that your mishap wasn’t happening in the real world. Thanks to a lot of help from computer technology, you’re in a simulator, a virtual world where practice not only makes perfect, but it’s also cheaper and saves time, money, and possibly lives—most often lots of time, money, and lives.

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And not only will you live despite your mistakes, but you get to come back shortly after pushing the reset controls and maybe getting a little more instruction (maybe even a posterior chewing) from your supervisor. When you finally do get into the real machine, you’ll be the wiser for it, because you’ve done it before—virtually.

Critics of simulator training say that there’s no substituting real life experience, which is absolutely true, even if a training situation has the potential for danger and damage. After all, elements such as movement can affect operations, but even those elements are slowly being introduced into the simulator training world, just as they have been for aircraft simulators, but costs are an important consideration that is being factored into simulators for the future.

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Photo: Caterpillar
Simulators are currently available for Caterpillar excavators, off-highway trucks, and mining trucks.

So-called old-school resistance is also an important stumbling block to simulator training. Many operators and supervisors have not only never used but many have never even heard of simulator training for heavy-equipment operators. And even if they have, objections to those  “newfangled things” are difficult to overcome, although in an overwhelming majority of cases, success speaks for itself. Further, according to virtually all of the experts interviewed for this story, this is another case where the gaming experience is also benefitting the training world. After all, gaming simulators can be fun, eliminating a lot of the hesitance users might have to using the same general idea in a training environment.

Working In a Virtual World
“I think it’s strange that a pilot wouldn’t think twice about using an aircraft simulator to improve his or her proficiency in the cockpit, and even maintain his or her proficiency in the cockpit, but when you put an operator into a dozer or another piece of heavy equipment like that, we often expect them to go directly from a classroom setting to the real thing without the advantage of that simulated environment,” says Larry J. Estep II, program manager of Cat Simulators for Caterpillar Inc. in Edwards, IL. “And just as a crew and passengers might be a little unnerved by a pilot who has never used a simulator, heavy-equipment owners should also be wary of operators who haven’t used simulators in training. After all, after simulator training operators are one step closer to being able to use real equipment without the time, money, and safety considerations being nearly the issue.”

According to Estep, users of Cat simulators have a full range of benefits, from equipment with all of the environmental concerns, such as viewing, controls, and even a seat belt. But for the instructor as well as the trainee, the simulators provide accurate measurement tools for immediate feedback results. These include execution speed, bucket travel, horizontal and vertical deviation, number of bucket slams and collisions, operation angles, and other important considerations. And unlike a supervisor, a simulator doesn’t miss anything.

“These and more are all available for Cat excavators, off-highway trucks, and mining-truck simulations,” Estep says.

Indeed, although most trainers will acknowledge that practice really does make perfect when assessing an operator’s performance, careful consideration must also be given by owners and managers to the long-term cost/benefit of using the actual equipment for training purposes versus simulators.

John Deere also offers training simulators for operator training. Deere offers simulators for its excavators, motor graders, and four-wheel-drive loader. Each simulator encompasses lessons on control familiarization, basic operation, maneuvering, loading and unloading, trenching, and loading a trailer.

According to Michael Hoeg, senior instructional designer and developer at the John Deere Training Center in Davenport, IA, “There’s been a huge jump in simulator interest, even in the last three months.”  Saving money on fuel and equipment damage are two factors for this, but screening and verifying skills of employees and applicants are part of the equation as well.

While the bulk of the sales are going to end users—contractors and such training organizations as unions, schools, and colleges—John Deere sees their use as split between training and marketing. “We’ve seen a tripling of foot traffic at events,” Hoeg says. According to one of his customers, “If you had told me five years ago that simulators were going to make sense to my business, I’d have told you that you were a nut case. Not any more. Every time I think we’ve found the limits of their usefulness, something else shows up. We started out thinking of them as a tool for evaluating and training new operators, but then we found that it allowed us to assess and improve the performance of our experienced operators as well. Then, as we began to equip more and more of our machines with guidance and control systems, we found that simulators made a huge difference there, too.”

Safety First
If you ask Cory Cook, vice president of Immersive Technologies, LLC, (Salt Lake City, UT) a leading maker of training simulators produced for such equipment makers as Cat, “The primary concern should always be safety. It’s not a coincidence that safety was the primary purpose for the founding of Immersive Technologies, and continues to be a major focus for all of our products. But thanks to the way the technology has advanced in recent years, better safety is just one byproduct if using simulators in training.”

In fact, according to Cook, the use of simulators has resulted in documented savings of 7.5% in equipment availability, a 13% to 20% increase in tire life, and a 40% reduction in the cost of reactive maintenance.

Further, Cook reports that one of the most striking reports from simulator users is disbelief on the part of users as to how useful and even fun simulators can be for training. According to Cook, simulators are one step in a series of training modules used by the company to teach operation skills to students.

“It’s not a matter of overkill,” Cook explains. “On the contrary, it’s reinforcement, when a person can learn from a book, and an instructor, and a simulator. One reinforces the previous efforts to teach a skill, but even I have to admit that the simulator is often what makes the light go on for our students. Simulators are what bring all the elements of the classroom training together before they have to step into a real piece of equipment where the problems of danger and damage are very real, indeed. And even after the student has left the classroom as well as the simulator, he is provided things like cards that he can take with him to the equipment that show him where some of the tools that might not be used often, such as the cold start, are located on the equipment.”

Immersive Technologies simulators consist of a base platform that can be transported easily, and, once at a job site, modules can be changed to incorporate different types of equipment. Even environments can be changed to make training available on the actual landscape that a contractor is working with. “It’s really a matter of not only using the same equipment a trainee is using, but we can also reproduce the exterior environment they are working on,” Cook says.

Parts of Cat simulator training equipment is also made by Morton, IL–based Simformotion, a licensee that recently introduced a new Gen II hardware for the Cat Simulators
product line.

Simformotion chief executive officer Ken Pflederer explains, “Our new hardware design helps deliver an exceptional operator training experience. Trainees can experience a rich simulated environment and learn the component skills of operating heavy machinery, complete with working pedals and controls, before training on actual equipment. Operators can also repeat exercises as often as needed in the simulated environment without compromising the safety of personnel, machines, or the job site.”

According to Pflederer, organizations that use heavy equipment simulators discover many cost-reduction benefits.

Safety is also the primary reason for HeviCert, located in Las Vegas, NV, and its founder and president, Mike Martens, whose more than 30 years of experience in the construction industry led him to lead the development in training methods on the forefront of the field.

“A few years ago I would have never believed that this technology would take us where we are today,” Martens says. “Between the capabilities of the technology and the vision of the creators and users alike, simulator training has gone further than I think anyone would have predicted not long ago.”

Martens only recently returned from a five-week stint in Kosovo where he used simulators not only to train workers, but also to determine the skill levels of workers imported from neighboring Poland, where workers may or may not have the needed technical abilities.

“I think everyone was impressed with how, using the simulators, we were able to judge the skill levels of the workers brought in on a USAid project,” he explains. “In the project we were using workers from three sources: Kosovo locals and Polish, as well as Americans that we brought in. We were very pleased to be able to give jobs to the Kosovo and Polish workers, since their unemployment is so high, but we also had to determine the skill levels of those workers before we put them on the real equipment. Not only did the simulators allow us to do that, but it also helped us to cut through language and cultural barriers by just sitting them down and letting them work. They could either do the work or they couldn’t.”

Martens uses simulators provided by Montreal-based Simlog, which makes heavy-equipment simulators based on a PC platform. Users can select from a variety of heavy equipment types, addressing them in various languages. In order to enhance the training experience further, Simlog recently introduced new USB-ready pedal controls for hydraulic excavator personal simulators, further extending the cost-effectiveness for excavator operator training. Finally, the simulation manager feature allows multiple users on one simulator, each separated by a unique account individualized by user name and password. This keeps managers informed about users as well as results, while maintaining confidentiality.

Another Simlog customer is Bechtel, whose operations director, Ken Burke, is largely responsible for implementation of the company’s simulator training program. “Simulators are another of one of those things that make you look back and wonder how you got along without them,” he says.

“Simulators are so good at what they do, and more. Whereas, when we implemented the simulator program, we were looking at the benefits sticky from a training perspective, but it goes beyond that. The old saying, ‘Tell me; I hear. Show me; I see. But help me while I do; that’s when I learn,’ is really true. I think simulator training goes far beyond just teaching a person to do. Simulator training is breaks through barriers in the learning process to establish a level of learning never achieved before.”

The Next Best Thing to Being There
According to Mike Stec, of Volvo Construction Equipment, Volvo provides advanced simulator training for three pieces of company equipment: the Wheel Loader L120F, the Crawler Excavator EC210C, and the Articulated Hauler A40E. Stec emphasizes that the company does not provide simulator training except to customers of Volvo’s North American Sales Training Department.

“Volvo provides the training hardware and software that make up the simulator, and, in addition, we provide the training experience which ultimately is the service being offered,” Stec explains.

According to Stec, simulator training is provides on the basics of equipment operation, the do’s and don’ts, the unexpected and hazardous scenarios, and the teaching techniques.

Stec emphasizes that the simulation training provided by Volvo is not as simple as plugging in the computer, playing a game, having fun, saying “wow,” and walking away. “Volvo is dedicated to providing training that molds good, sound and proficient operators,” Stec says.

Case New Holland, a major maker of heavy equipment for construction and agricultural applications, has also recently introduced a virtual reality application for training. According to Kezhun Li, manager of digital prototyping and simulation for Case New Holland, a virtual system was created around a head-mounted display and a cyber glove that is driven by mockup software.

“We are proud to report that we are using our new system to its fullest extent,” he says. “We are using the tracking system for interactive design reviews and design concept evaluations. Our display is proving invaluable for cab visibility tests, while we are using our Cyberglove for reachability studies. All three pieces of the kit work together reliably and in many combinations. The integration is seamless and the whole system is reasonably priced.”

Halfway From the Classroom to the Job Site
VISTA Training Inc. in Waterford, WI, provides the construction and mining industries with a variety of computer-based training programs, videos, DVDs and instructor kits, onsite equipment-operator training, and cost-effective, PC-based equipment simulators.

“Adults tend to learn best with training that is hands-on and experience-based, which is what simulators provide,” explains Chuck Frey, VISTA’s marketing manager. “When you reinforce computer-based learning with a simulator and on-the-job training tools, you’ve got a very effective curriculum that helps trainees to retain knowledge better than instructor-led training. That enables trainees to get up to speed quickly and to operate productively and safely on the job site.”

In the mining industry, VISTA Training recently launched a comprehensive haul-truck operator training curriculum called TruckLogic that is based on this learning model. “There’s no reason why it couldn’t also be used in certain segments of the construction industry,” Frey adds.

All This and GPS, Too
Although some might make the case that a simulator is a far cry from real life, thanks to the cooperative efforts with GPS makers, students using simulators can enjoy the full benefit of using more of the actual equipment available in the real world environment. After all, even the GPS equipment available on much of today’s heavy equipment is included in simulators.

John Dice, of Topcon Inc., who was instrumental in the development of GPS applications for simulator-based training, says, “Realism is what simulator training is all about. And fortunately, GPS technology has become such an integral part of the construction business that without having GPS represented in the training, that’s one more element of that environment that’s not realistic. The military uses the old adage, ‘Train as you fight.’ Well, construction has implemented its own adage, ‘Train as you work,’ and it’s the better for it.”

Leica Geosystems Inc. is also working with simulator makers to develop applications of GPS technology for simulator training. According to Fred Rogers, who was responsible for setting up the use of GPS in machine control training simulators, “As important as GPS has become in construction, most equipment operators are getting shortchanged when it comes to its application in their work. Fortunately, with GPS capabilities in the simulators they train on, that’s one step closer to their real world that their training can incorporate, making them that much more valuable to the work they do in the future.”

Simulator Training in the Future
Just as is the case with much of computer technology, there’s very little telling what will happen in the future in regard to what those simulators will be capable of. Most experts agree that only a unique level of vision could have predicted what has happened so far. Fortunately, those responsible for the development of the technology are working closely with those doing the training to incorporate their ideas for what will be a whole new level of simulator capabilities in the future.

Virtually all industry experts agree that simulator training won’t replace real-world experience, but simulators do offer important advantages. Numerous studies have proved that the use of simulators does improve an operator’s performance and skill levels. Teaching effectiveness is also improved, because users can repeat an operation until they get it right on a simulator before they enter the cab, and the muscle memory is retained from the simulator experience.