In the construction industry, operators of heavy equipment have traditionally been trained primarily on the job, largely through a sometimes-treacherous process of trial and error. But this approach to training is far from optimal, as it can be unsafe, tough on the machines, and expensive. Fortunately, in recent years, virtual reality (VR) hardware and software have been developed that provide increasingly realistic simulations of the situations operators are likely to encounter on an actual building site. In addition to providing training for new employees, construction equipment simulators can be used to screen recruits, and to help experienced operators sharpen their skills. While the defense and aviation sectors have long used advanced simulators to train pilots, until relatively recently the simulation programs used in the construction industry lacked realistic graphics, and were unable to accurately replicate the dynamic movements of machines and their loads. But as concerns about safety in the construction industry have grown and heavy construction equipment has become increasingly sophisticated, equipment simulators have been developed that offer highly realistic computer-generated simulations of the experience of operating these machines.
Simulators can now, for example, be used to practice excavating or loading dirt, operating a drill, digging a trench, unloading a beam, rigging or hoisting cables, or lifting a heavy load. These virtual machines and their loads are programmed to behave as they would in real life, with operator errors causing the same types of collisions and damage that they would on an actual jobsite. The tasks can also be performed under a wide range of simulated worksite conditions, including in rainy or foggy weather or low light. Simulator programs are available for a range of machines, including tractors, trucks, excavators, backhoes, cranes, loaders, graders, and bulldozers.
Simulators vary in their functionality. Some offer immersive experiences that include a full control panel, a VR headset, and a cab equipped with a hydraulic seat that shifts in response to the actions taken by the user. There are also PC-based applications that are operated using conventional computer screens, together with joysticks, control pads, and pedals. While the experience of using a simulator is still artificial, trainees are made to feel as though they are in an actual machine, and are able to practice techniques that mimic those they would use in real life. Having developed the “muscle memory” for performing basic tasks through many hours of practice, trainees should find the transition to field training on a real machine far easier.
And even as VR technology has advanced, the costs of simulation programs have come down substantially. Investing in this technology can lower a construction company’s training costs, in part because unlike real equipment, simulators use no fuel and put no extra wear and tear on real equipment. In addition, simulators can be used in a classroom or an office at any time of day regardless of the weather, with or without an instructor present.
As well as training new operators, a simulator can be used to assess the aptitudes of job candidates, and help experienced operators further hone their skills at times when they are not working onsite. Each training session on the simulator is measured and recorded, and the resulting performance reports can help both new and more experienced operators pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses, and benchmark their performance against the proficiency levels demonstrated by other operators.
Moreover, project managers and supervisors can refer to these reports in awarding bonuses and promotions, and in determining which operators are best suited to perform certain tasks in the field. Deploying only the most skilled operators for each job can increase profitability by improving safety, reducing the chances of costly mistakes, and ensuring that the machines are being operated with high levels of speed and efficiency.