Training in a virtual world

By Laura Hatton23 August 2013

Detail from the high resolution screens inside a TenStar simulator

Detail from the high resolution screens inside a TenStar simulator

In 1982 training for mobile and tower crane operators was made mandatory in Canada by the Trades Qualification and Apprenticeship Act (TQAA). Before this operator training was not a requirement. Harold McBride, executive director at the Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario, a crane operator training organisation in Canada, explains, “From 1969 to 1978 there were no training requirements for crane operators and, as a result, crane related fatalities accounted for 19.8 % of all construction fatalities. Mandatory training for hoisting engineers was implemented in 1982 when mobile and tower crane operation became compulsory trades under the TQAA. From 1979 to 2004, after credible training for crane operators was established, that percentage dropped to 8.8 %.”

The connection between increased training and reduced fatalities on constructions sites was noted and training soon became an essential step to becoming a crane operator. Training providers and crane manufacturers around the world began offering training courses. Over the years these courses developed to include simulator training to help provide a realistic and safer learning environment.

Simon Hogg, application consultant at TenStar Simulation, a manufacturer of training simulators for the construction industry, explains why, “Learning to operate a crane for the first time can be a daunting prospect, as well as costly exercise for the training provider. Through simulator training students learn terminology, control familiarisation, hand eye co-ordination skills and they can return to the simulators and practice certain areas they may feel weaker in. The most significant benefit by far is that mistakes can be made on a simulator, which is not an option on an actual site.”

Although simulators are by no means a replacement for training on an actual machine, as Simon points out, they are a valuable tool and can be used to train a whole team, not just an individual, with minimal costs and risks to health and safety.

Sebastien Loze, director of marketing and partner sales at CM Labs, manufacturer of Vortex Simulators, says, “Crane simulator training is not just about training the operator, it is [about making it] possible to teach the whole lift crew. Teamwork cannot be taught in the classroom but, with a simulated training environment that incorporates multi-role-playing [including lift planning, lifting and reviewing], the operator, signalman and rigger can all be trained together and take these skills out to the real job.”

Simulator training however isn’t just for trainees. Experienced operators can also benefit from them, as Hans-Jörg Schwärzler, marketing for maritime cranes at Liebherr-Werk Nenzing in Austria explains, “A major benefit of simulator training is the ability to simulate harsh environmental conditions, such as snowfall, heavy winds, torrential rain and high waves. This allows both experienced operators and trainees to practice operating in challenging conditions and, thanks to the virtual environment, damage to crane equipment and injuries to personnel are eliminated.”

John Alexander, global integrated technical communications director at Manitowoc Crane Care adds to this, “It is important that people are re-evaluated to ensure that they are capable of operating the latest equipment. For example, someone who has trained and has certified on one of our older Manitowoc 4100 crawler cranes might be an excellent operator, but it does not mean they can just step into an 18000 and know how it all works.”

Simulation developments
Crane simulators have developed over the years and now include a range of environments. CM Labs, for example, where early work in crane simulation involved an ongoing partnership with the OETIO and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), offer simulators for tower cranes and mobile cranes to knuckle boom offshore cranes and straddle carriers. All options come with full simulation of crane dynamics, cable systems, load dynamics, lift operations, and ship or platform motion.

“Of course, simulation is always second-best to the real equipment so we do our best to make the experience as realistic as possible,” Loze, says, “This includes the equipment including real seats and controls, authentic worksites and sounds [including weather], and a head-tracking system for precise points of view. A 3-degree-of-freedom motion platform replicates the motion and vibration experienced by the operator while travelling and lifting.

“Furthermore, an instructor’s console allows trainers to introduce unexpected events such as mechanical and hydraulic problems and sling breaks,” Loze adds. “All progress is monitored and training sessions collect information related to the number of collisions and spills, loading violations, time spent in rough handling of crane, objects moved, and more.”

TenStar Simulation includes tower crane, truck mounted crane and timber truck crane simulators. The tower crane simulator has 11 exercises ranging from basic lifting to pouring concrete form a fifth floor. The truck mounted crane simulator has a further 24 exercises. Throughout these exercises students are notified with visual warnings as they progress through the tasks. This is accompanied by a report to assess the students’ progress and performance and to identify any problem areas which need more training.

Crane manufacturer Liebherr is developing a range of crane training simulators. Liebherr simulators (LiSIM) include ship-to-shore gantry cranes, rubber tyre gantry cranes, mobile harbour cranes and offshore cranes. The simulators have full high definition (HD) flat screen monitors and high quality surround sound speakers.

“Additionally, a motion base ensures that the driver experiences realistic movement,” Hans-Jörg Schwärzler, from Liebher-Werk Nenzing, adds, “There is also a head tracker which uses any head movement of the crane operator to calculate the view accordingly. Environments can also be modified for day time or night time operation, weather conditions, and cargo and vessel size.” There is also a database and performance function so it is possible to track the progress of the students over time.

Training programmes
The improvement in realism with training simulators has encouraged most, if not all, training providers to incorporate simulators into their training programmes. Crane manufacturer Manitowoc’s training division, Manitowoc Crane Care, now includes real-life cabs with built-in simulators inside the training centre in Shady Grove. John Alexander from Manitowoc Crane Care explains, “The world of crane simulators has advanced dramatically in recent years. In terms of the weather and other environmental conditions you can program them with; it is a complete contrast with the simulators that were around as recently as a few years ago.”

A virtual future
As technology continues to develop, it is expected that crane simulators will be used even more for operator training and even certification processes, as Loze says, “We see simulation being used for certification and re-certification more and more. For example, North Sea crane operators must be recertified every three years. This recertification can be done using simulators. The role and use of simulation will continue to grow and in some areas we are even building simulation-based training directly into the actual equipment so operators can perform training in the equipment seat during downtime.”

Hans-Jörg Schwärzler, adds, “The rapid development of simulation indicates that it will one day be possible to substitute actual crane training with simulator training.”

“As technology develops, I think we will see more simulators used for training and fewer live cranes,” concludes John Alexander.

Meeting standards
Although operator training is moving forwards, both in terms of technology and safety, legislative requirements and training standards around the world sometimes don’t keep up. McBride explains, “There are many developing countries that are experiencing construction booms where occupational health and safety are all but non-existent. Companies and legislative bodies recognise that training is needed to reduce equipment downtime and damage, but the safety standards that come with the training are seen as an unreasonable cost.”

To help overcome these situations, companies, including crane manufacturers, are providing training programmes to help keep operator training around the world up to date. Manitowoc Crane Care, for example, offers operator training worldwide. John Alexander explains, “In Italy we’re working with the government’s Ministry of Labour to become an authorised trainer for operators of mobile cranes and in France we provide operator training, certification and licensing for tower cranes from our facility in La Clayette.”

In the UK, Ireland and Trinidad and Tobago, the UK’s accredited lorry loader training scheme (ALLMI) provides training programmes that cover all UK requirements and legislative issues specific to those countries. The courses include crane supervisor, slinger and signaller, lorry loader operator and ALLMI instructor training. “Training should be relevant to the machine size and application to suit the candidates’ needs based on what they’ll be using in the workplace. Further workplace training should be given as required once the basic training has taken place,” Alan Johnson, ALLMI technical director adds.

For other training institutes, the goal has been to establish generic rather than capacity specific training standards; an approach that is supported by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). The OETIO follows this example and offers crane operator, heavy equipment operator, and health and safety training programmes to not only North America, but also internationally. It also provides crane operator training and licensing for three compulsory branches (Mobile 339A, Tower 339B, and Boom truck 339C), while still providing training on smaller capacity (0-8 ton) mobile cranes. The courses cover lift planning to crane maintenance and practical training (which ranges from 40 to 6,000 hours on a job site) and trade exams. The OETIO use a range of simulators in conjunction with its training programmes, from mobile crane simulators to simulators for wind turbine erection.

Aside from producing simulators, CM Labs also incorporates certification tests. “Within their training exercises operators can practice standard tests such as the National Commission for the Certification of Operators [NCCCO] tests using different types and sizes of cranes,” explains Loze. “Similarly, Vortex Simulators can be used to help operators train and prepare for NCCA-accredited Crane Institute Certification (CIC) exams.”

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