Modelling the real
By Andrew Snook
Simulators provide an enhanced training opportunity.
By Andrew Snook
Equipment rental houses are always looking for the next great piece of technology for their customers. One piece of technology that has been largely overlooked in the rental space is the potential for virtual reality simulators.
This comes as no surprise since this technology came with an extremely high price tag when it first arrived in the construction world. But things have changed and the pricing has dropped significantly since that time. So, what kind of opportunities now exist in the equipment rental space to offer VR simulation training on equipment like excavators, loaders and aerial work platforms? According to Edmonton-based Serious Labs, which offers a mobile elevating work platform VR simulator and a VR crane simulator that was developed in partnership with Industrial Training International, there’s plenty of opportunity to be had.
“VR is taking off everywhere and the rental equipment industry is no exception,” says Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin. “VR offers tremendous benefits in terms of assessment and skills-building, and there are a few different ways rental companies can bring that to customers. The simulators are so portable that they can be set up virtually anywhere – in-store, on the worksite, in an office, and so on.”
Julien Richer-Lanciault, product manager for Montreal-based CM Labs Simulations, says his company has already started receiving interest from rental houses.
“There is a good opportunity for sure. With virtual training, we’re starting to see requests coming out from rental companies,” he says, adding that renting the equipment creates an opportunity for the technology to be accessible to a larger number of people. “I see them as good tools for rental companies for earthmoving equipment and for the crane industry.”
How significant an investment would it be for an equipment rental store to offer in-house VR simulation training? Colvin says rental companies can invest in this technology relatively easily.
“The cost of the simulator is a fraction of the cost for a real MEWP, and the footprint is only six feet by eight feet, so there’s not a lot of space required,” he says. “What a rental store does need to commit to is understanding the simulator, learning to use it in customer solution-building, and providing appropriate training support. It’s about asking the questions to see the need and plan for implementation. How are you assessing for proficiency right now? What would it mean to you if your operators could work more safely and efficiently? How can we design an assessment and training approach that will align with your current jobs? The good news is that these are great conversations to be having with customers anyways, and it’s a great opportunity for the rental store to leverage the value-add of data-driven training and upskilling.”
As a rough estimate, Richer-Lanciault says that a simulator these days is probably between 10 and 20 percent of the cost of an actual piece of equipment, which is significantly less than five or 10 years ago, due to the technology evolving fairly quickly.
“Just one accident on an excavator or wheel loader and it would be equal cost,” he says, adding that, for a contractor, the investment is sound since their operators can use the technology to increase efficiencies on a jobsite without removing an active piece of equipment from the fleet.
Like most pieces of technology, bringing this kind of equipment into a rental house will require some training.
“As with any piece of equipment, there’s some learning to ensure that rental shops are able to understand the simulator and provide its full value to the customer,” Colvin says. “We have a great customer service team in-house at Serious Labs, and they can typically onboard new rental customers in about half a day. Since COVID-19, we’ve switched to online onboarding and we’ve found that it works well. Once a rental company has gone through that onboarding to start getting value out of their simulator, we have extensive follow-on support to help them market it, create solutions for customers, effectively integrate it into customer workflows, and get the most value out of the operator telematics. In addition to that, we have our customer service team on standby to help both the rental company and their end customers so that we can ensure a seamless experience.”
Giving traditional training a lift
In the world of mobile elevated work platforms, there is great potential for VR simulators to offer an enhanced training experience for operators when combined with traditional methods, according to Tony Groat, North America regional manager for the International Powered Access Federation.
“The one initial challenge you have with this technology is the fact that as an industry, we have fundamentally agreed that it is a requirement for the initial training of the equipment that an operator must be on the equipment. Having a VR simulator is an added element, not a substitute,” Groat says. “But we think it has an abundance of value to be added to education and learning. It’s a tool that’s been in other industries for many years.”
Colvin also stresses that simulators should be part of a customer solution that includes support from a certified trainer.
“The MEWP simulator objectively measures over 130 data points of operator telematics, so that trainer is going to be able to provide highly detailed information to help the user increase their proficiency quickly,” he explains. “We’ve found that this ability to quickly and easily provide assessments, remediation courses and practice time is a strong customer value. It’s also easy to bundle with a MEWP rental – the customer gets the machine and a tool to build proficiency with it. All of this together, combined with the emphasis on new technology in the industry right now, provides a great reason to reach out to customers.”
Not unlike working with VR simulators for loaders and excavators, these tools can assist new operators with navigating real-world hazards that they will encounter on the jobsite, which isn’t always the case with traditional training methods.
“The VR simulators from a technology standpoint can provide you with scenarios in the programming that is more realistic to what job applications are and expose operators to potential hazards that they would be exposed to in the workspace without any risk of any harm,” Groat says. He adds that most new operators receive hands-on practical evaluations performed in controlled and pristine environments with hard, level surfaces in a backyard or indoors on an asphalt or concrete surface. “Then the next day, those operators go off to a job site that’s not level, with all types of potential hazards around them, and that’s their first introduction to those hazards in the actual operation. So, those VR simulators could provide a tremendous number of environmental issues that operators will face, and that’s of significant value.”
In the end, will most contractors purchase VR simulators outright to enhance their employee training? Don’t count on it, Groat says.
“From a practical perspective, people will do what’s required, and not add additional elements,” Groat says, adding that he believes there’s still plenty of places where VR simulators will find a good home. “I see it being used in lots of unions and going into technical schools, where it is a learning environment and is a learning tool that expands the education experience… where the time and expense to do training isn’t as scrutinized.”
Another area where VR simulators have the potential to enhance training is in the evaluation process to pick up on things a trainer might miss from time to time. Groat uses the example of evaluating a new operator that has elevated their work platform but might not have looked in the direction of travel right away before moving the equipment.
“When a guy does that 50 feet in the air, you may not be able to pick that up as quickly,” he says.
VR simulators aren’t just for inexperienced operators. There’s lots of opportunities for veteran equipment operators as well. In addition to creating scenarios with significant hazards, simulators can be used to get veteran operators used to other newer technologies they might not be entirely comfortable with using on a jobsite.
“In terms of technology adoption, we see a massive boom coming to construction,” says Richer-Lanciault. “With GPS systems or mission-control systems, experienced operators are not always comfortable with these technologies. Let them try these technologies in simulators. Anything happens, just hit restart. No fuel or risk of breaking equipment.”
VR simulators could also be useful for offering some refresher training on the equipment for operators who use the equipment infrequently.
“We have operators that use it for a day and then might not use it again for three months, six months or a year. During that period of time, if he hasn’t used it but his training card is still valid, is he still a qualified operator?” Groat asks. “You could take a VR simulator and have an app and have them go through this and evaluate everyone efficiently on that program.”
One thing most people in the industry can agree on is that VR simulators are going to be a regular part of the construction equipment experience moving forward.
“Working with industry – general contractors, unions, training schools – I see a great future for simulation,” Richer-Lanciault predicts. “I think it will be fun four or five years from now.”