Every equipment operator, regardless of skill level and experience, comes to the table with different strengths and weaknesses. Across the board, however, employers and training organizations are finding that construction equipment simulation is one way to increase engagement when teaching them new skills.
Today’s simulators are data and analytics driven, which is essential to optimizing training time and correcting unsafe behaviors. This means that training techniques move away from a checklist approach, and instead target specific skills that can be used to make people more efficient and safer.
All this can be done by analyzing past behavior and using that information to provide useful learning paths that are more likely to result in the development of skills that will be used throughout the competency lifecycle. This approach also makes training more personal.
With data analytics, training can tackle skill deficiencies for each person, which elevates their individual skill sets to a much higher level, rather than applying a single learning objective across an entire classroom.
Different operators with different skill levels can work toward objectives that are meaningful to them and their specific job. Operators don’t have to spend time sitting through classes reviewing materials they already know.
When you factor in a simulator’s intrinsically unbiased feedback, the operator training experience becomes measurably more productive. This is especially true with simulators that give trainers the ability to “tune” the simulator’s reporting criteria to indicate which operating characteristics are most important to them.
Instructors can track individual performance metrics and customize scenario scoring in a way that focuses on specific skill development and error avoidance. They can then determine if these errors are common among apprentices and proactively focus on correcting these mistakes. In the future, we will likely be seeing training paths that are customized to individual operator learning profiles.
Collaborate and Teach
Simulators are an objective tool that allows operators to be compared apples to apples. Using scoring criteria, it is possible to focus on the gaps in skills so that training can be focused on areas that need improvement. The ability to remove bias and teach skills in a consistent manner is why simulators are being used for operator performance or certification exams.
A recent study published by the NCCCO Foundation suggests there is potential for using simulation to deliver exams to crane operators. The study, which was conducted over an eight-month period and released in March 2020, tracked the performance of a group of NCCCO certification candidates taking crane operator certification exams on actual cranes as well as via simulation. The results indicate that the simulator test is a highly reliable measure for predicting a passing score on an actual crane.
Additionally, collaboration tools teach teamwork and communication between crew members. Team-based training can be difficult and expensive to reproduce in real-life, and even being able to do so in a simulated environment is a relatively new development for this market. It allows team members to develop communication and risk assessment skills. Accidents happen when crews aren’t used to each other. That’s why collaborative training is effective. When communication works well, it is the key to productivity. When it doesn't work well, it's one of the biggest safety hazards there is.
“The operator can teach the signaler and tell him which signals to work on if they weren’t clear,” says Dara Betz, program manager for Del Mar College’s Division of Workforce and Economic Development.
For example, in earthmoving applications, one trainee operates an excavator a second trainee controls an articulated dump truck within the same virtual environment. A simulation for a crane scenario might include interaction between a signalperson and the crane operator or the ability to perform a tandem lifting simulation, which teaches the lead crane operator how to safely and efficiently maneuver the load with the secondary crane.
Nobody likes to waste time on unproductive activities. Simulation training provides the shortest, most effective path to good safety habits and skills acquisition.
“Skills acquired transfer over to the work site,” indicates Robbie Foxen, executive director of Missouri Valley Line Constructors Apprenticeship and Training Program.
The Missouri Valley Line Constructors has seven locations in the Midwest and about 600 apprentices enrolled at any given time. The training center owns a few pieces of equipment, but with dozens of apprentices vying for time on digger derricks, boom trucks, skid steers, and bucket trucks, scheduling was difficult. In order to standardize equipment operator training, as well as expanding seat time for the apprentices, the organization turned to simulation-based training.
One advantage noted by their trainers is that the simulators can track progress throughout the apprenticeship program.
“There are four or five different tasks on each piece of equipment that can be assigned to a student to track their progress,” Foxen says. “You can see the results get better and really assess their progress as they spend more time on both the equipment in the field and the simulator in the classroom.”
Training and Certification
Simulation training can be easily worked into short windows of time available for training. Rather than having to mobilize actual construction equipment, schedule trainers or supervisors, and pull teams from the field, organizations that have invested in simulators can be them available nearly any day of the year.
While many operators run the same equipment all year, different seasons may call for different machines. By using one simulator with swappable controls and different training packs, Missouri Valley Line Constructors Apprenticeship found that the operators and apprentices were able to gain familiarity with most machines in the fleet.
Their apprentices spend about one-third of equipment training time on the simulator and two-thirds on a machine in the field. Apprentices now also have about ten days a year in the classroom, where they receive roughly five additional hours of training on the simulators. In addition to the apprentices, journeyman use the simulators for skills upgrading, and several hundred individuals per year register to get practice.
“Close to 1,000 different operators each year end up using the simulator,” Foxen says.
From a trainer’s perspective, the simulators allow the apprentice to operate in different scenarios.
“It makes them more well-rounded, and it also gets them used to operating different pieces of hydraulic equipment,” he explains.
Simulators, by their nature, reduce an individual’s fear of failure because of the low-risk nature of learning in a simulated environment. It can be stressful to learn something new, regardless of whether you are a novice or a veteran learning a new piece of equipment or a new skill. By making the learning environment low-risk, motivation increases to apply safety awareness or improved production techniques.
“It allows the student to get comfortable with the controls, and it takes that fear away — he’s not going to turn over a crane, he’s not going to break a rotation bearing, he’s not going to be slapping cable on the boom,” says Dub Huggins, who was a crane instructor for a training company in Bakersfield, Calif.
He encourages certified operators to utilize a simulator prior to re-certifying or when seeking a certification for a different type of crane, or just to “shake off the rust before a big job.”
Huggins shared an example of just how forgiving simulators can be. A young crane operator who had severe burns on his right hand from a car accident was unsure of his future. Huggins suspected the operator had lost more will than dexterity.
“I put him on the vortex simulator,” he relates, “and let him build up his confidence there. And then when I put him on a crane, he got it.”
Today’s construction equipment operators are transitioning into systems monitors, with increased importance placed on their role in the job site. Simulation training is a bridge between where an individual operator’s skills are today and where they need to be tomorrow.
Drew Carruthers is director of product strategy, CM Labs Simulations. He leads strategic efforts and OEM relationships, and closely monitors technological trends in the construction industry.