Simulators Helping Contractors Get Training on Expensive Equipment

While still in its infancy, simulated training can still help solve operator shortage and help keep current operators certified

Simulators Helping Contractors Get Training on Expensive Equipment

As horizontal directional drilling expands and more crews are needed, training becomes complicated. Manufacturers are trying to do their part in easing that pain with the help of simulators. Vermeer has a full-sized simulator where contractors can get the feel of a directional drill and how it behaves.

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Ask any contractor and they’ll likely tell you that finding and training qualified employees is one of the biggest challenges facing any trade industry today.

Part of the problem is that technological advancements equal more training and higher thresholds for entry, but in the case of horizontal directional drilling, technology may also be part of the solution.

As HDD expands and more crews are needed, training becomes complicated. Manufacturers are trying to do their part in easing that pain with the help of simulators.

“The beauty of the simulator is it’s the same platform as our real equipment,” says Dan Vroom, customer training lead for Vermeer. “So if we can train somebody well on the simulator, they can really run any of our products. It’s the same process, same features, same control layout.”

There was a time when manufacturers could bring each of their customers in for training on the actual rigs, at the factory itself. But as the customer base expands, and ground conditions change, that is not always feasible. Not to mention, with increasing underground utility saturation, simply finding a safe place for practice boring is a challenge.

“It’s always best to get on-rig experience, so we don’t actually use a simulator for the training we do at the factory, but we do promote its use at the dealership level,” Vroom says. “It just expedites the process.”

Ditch Witch has been utilizing simulated training for many years. Unlike Vermeer, they opted not to pursue the larger, model-chair simulators, which tend to be heavy and expensive. Instead, they use a simple setup with video game joysticks and a monitor. It doesn’t have the same crossover value as the larger simulators, but benefits from mobility.

At its current level, simulator technology is a supplement to other traditional training methods, not a replacement. Simulators, while valuable, are just one piece of the puzzle.

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER

Ditch Witch incorporates its simulators into a five-step training method, which also includes online and classroom training. The company still offers on-rig boring in their training, but having the simulator gives customers a leg up before getting to that stage, simplifying the process.

“The simulators are good. I think the market is still trying to figure out what is the best intended use,” Vroom says. “Because a simulator on its own is OK, and then a classroom training on its own is OK, but how do you partner those up together to get the biggest bang for you buck?”

Potential for simulated training is ever-evolving, as evidenced by Ditch Witch’s recent foray into a virtual reality simulator. They use a simple setup with actual machine control joysticks and a virtual reality ocular mask and monitor.

“It gives the simulation depth, where the operator can get a full 360-degree view around him and the machine,” says Greg Wolfe, director of product support and training for Ditch Witch. “Our new VR simulator allows us to engage both the novice operator and that operator who’s got three or four or five years of experience, in helping him hone his skill.”

ADDING MORE PIECES

Hardware and implementation aren’t the only factors that continue to advance — software additions seek to provide more versatility and further uses for the technology.

“The operations of the simulator allow you to be able to see not only what you’re doing when you’re boring, but gives you both a topographical and a side view of the bore site. With the VR simulator, we offer several bore site conditions, allowing the driller to learn and be evaluated on his or her performance, all in a safe environment without causing harm to themselves, the machine or the environment,” Wolfe says. “It’s a pretty dynamic tool.”

As the internal structure of these simulations progress, specialization will become more feasible in the form of advanced situational training for experienced operators.

Most manufacturers and regions offer certifications for HDD operators, something that is becoming expected more and more by employers as well. Ditch Witch offers online certification after a student completes the six-module HDD course.

"This is approximately six to eight hours of online material before even getting an operator on or around an HDD job site," Wolfe says.

Vermeer recertifies operators every three years, and simulators could play a role in simplifying that process.

“When we’re talking about training, it’s all about consistency. So when you have a simulator, in the fundamentals of it, it is all going to be the same,” Vroom says. “No matter who gets in the seat, they’re going to hear the same message and see the same response, so to me that’s where the benefit really lays, is consistency.”

THE FINAL PIECE

This technology could go beyond training new or existing operators, even into classrooms, as a way to pique students’ interest in the trades as a career path. “I think it would be cool if you incorporated a lot of this at the community college level or the high school, to get more traction to the industry, to promote the industry,” Vroom says.

Some in the industry are already pushing that idea forward, such as CM Labs, which hosted a seminar and demo at Del Mar College, where students had the opportunity to try an analogous simulation.

Over the past several years, the industry has made great strides in simulated training, but there is still room to grow. “The simulator has to be at the right entry point to be useful and beneficial,” Vroom says. “Right now, we’re almost there, but there could be some tweaks to make it even better.”



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