Virtual Texas

7 February 2018


CM Labs’ Vortex simulator has helped train operators at a Texas college and at an IUOE Local in the same state.

CM Labs’ Vortex simulator has helped train operators at a Texas college and at an IUOE Local in the same state.

Simulators are increasingly used for training. In the case of the IUOE Local 178, based in Forth Worth and serving 129 Texas counties, the operating engineers’ union has had one for a decade.  When their now-aging simulator needed replacing, in 2016, they decided to upgrade to the CM Labs Vortex system. Indeed, they ordered two.

The first is a portable unit with three display screens. Housed in a trailer, it can be towed to colleges and career fairs. Loaded with the system’s rough-terrain and crawler crane software it can give students—and those who are thinking of becoming students—a hands-on feel for operating such equipment.  It can give a wider range of experience than training on real equipment: the Vortex is not limited to ideal conditions. It can give virtual-reality simulations of poor weather conditions, wind and rain, and such hazards as obstacles or personnel in the site.

The IUOE’s second simulator is a fixed unit, permanently installed at the union hall. This is a five-screen unit, and thus even more realistic. “One of the biggest selling points for me was the immersiveness of the five screens” said Mack Bennett, business manager of Local 178. “Instead of looking at the screen right in front of you, there are graphics on each side of you too.”

Here the Vortex is loaded with software for backhoe, rough terrain, tower and crawler crane simulations. All apprentices who are in the Local 178 apprentices training programme operate the simulator, which Bennett says offers several safety benefits. “Instead of putting first-year apprentices on live equipment and talking to them through a radio, we can stand beside them and explain the situations,” he said. “It is a controlled environment and a better learning tool.”

It not only keeps the apprentices safe, it keeps the Local’s cranes out of harm’s way as well.  “We have paid a half-million dollars for some of the cranes, and we don’t need someone hurt or the equipment or building damaged.”

As with the mobile unit it is also a useful tool for attracting recruits to the industry and to the Local. “Non-members will come into the office, looking for opportunities to run a tower crane or backhoe. Instead of tying up personnel from our training sites we can set up a scenario on the simulator and really see their skills” said Bennett.

Typically the simulator is in use twice a month when apprenticeship classes are in session—though it is used more often in wet weather when outside training is not possible. During one rainy week in autumn the simulator was in use for 60 hours.

It sees more use than the cranes that are out in the yard—about 120 hours more each month. “Our first- and second-year apprentices are kept on the simulator because we want them to be comfortable—and we also want to be comfortable” said Bennett. “You can stand beside the seat and let the apprentice know that the jib is too far out, or you can tell them the reason why they are catching too much drift. You can actually talk to them without an engine blowing and going. “

Another benefit is that the apprentice can be scored and their performance recorded as they use the unit. The user will receive an ID, and trainers can see if the apprentice has improved over time.

“If someone has trouble controlling the load or has too much of a pendulum swing, you can see if they learn to control the load better.  It tracks everything that you do.”

A measure of the simulator’s success is the pass rate for apprentices taking the NCCCO exams to become certified operators. “There is an NCCO course in the software, and apprentices can practice on it before taking the practical test” he said. “With seat time on the simulator they are a little more proficient when they take the actual practical.” This practice is also a cost saving for the Local, which has to pay a fee each time a member takes the practical exam.

Even some skilled operators have used the Vortex, often for crossover training, “We may have a crawler crane operator running a tower crane simulation to see if they like it” said Bennett.

Another user of the Vortex simulator, also in Texas, is Del Mar College in Corpus Christi.  Here the rationale is the growing shortage of skilled labour to meet the needs of the current construction boom, especially in the nearby petrochemical and oil and gas industries. Del Mar College’s Division of Workforce and Economic Development is providing customised training programmes for local energy providers. Heavy equipment is essential for these companies, but their employees may not have the necessary skills to operate these machines.

The college was running a safety training programme, teaching within it the principles of heavy equipment operation. “While we were able to tech the main ideas using PowerPoint presentations and textbooks, the corporate services team decided that using a heavy equipment simulator would have much greater impact on the students’ ability to grasp the concepts’ said Dara Betz, programme manager for Workforce Programs at the college.

Here again, safety is a consideration: “Simulators allow trainees to purposefully undertake the hardest activities and procedural tasks in a safe environment without dangerous implications’ said Betz. The simulators also eliminate the maintenance, upkeep, fuel and inspection costs of a live machine

Theirs is a mobile five-screen unit, transportable on a gooseneck trailer.  “Many simulators are a computer screen on a table with a gamer’s joystick, and you feel you’re playing a video game” said class instructor Gary Griffith. “If you sit down at the Vortex simulator with the five screens, you actually feel like you’re in a crane.”

The unit is modular, and the controls can be swapped out which will enable the school to add other software in the future. It is currently planning to add the backhoe, forklift and tower training packs to its current set of modules. 

On any real job site, the signaller is crucial to crane operation. The same is true on the simulator—and there is also a training module for the signaller. Other simulators on the market use an avatar to provide the signals. The Vortex, in contrast, separates the operator from the signaller. “Here the operator can teach the signaller and tell them which signals to work on if they were not clear” said Betz.

As with the IUOE, Del Mar uses the Vortex to measure students’ success rates— and takes advantage of its foul-weather simulations as well. “They are learning more quickly because we are able to integrate environmental issues into their training” said Betz. “We can make it look like a real jobsite with personnel, weather issues, and all the different aspects of operating a crane in different situations.”

Gary Griffith points also to the extra confidence given by the simulator. “They get that muscle memory down, and when they hop in the crane they are familiar with the controls.”

Again, the goal for Del Mar is for students to be accredited by NCCCO; and here they find the same advantages that IUOE has experienced. “It allows the student to go through the course and practice as much as they want” Betz said. 

Del Mar is also working the simulator into its own credited degree programs, which includes heavy equipment operations, maintenance technicians and more. “The simulator is what we need to kick start the program,” Betz said.