The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced the world to adapt to a variety of changes, from social distancing to lockdowns. New digital tools, like Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings, have become commonplace as the technologies have cemented their spots in the world’s new pandemic reality.
Digital tools like virtual reality (VR) and extended reality (XR) are certainly not new technologies. Training through simulators, for example, has been used by the aviation industry and the military for decades. Most attendees of The ARA Show™ also are familiar with the headset-wearing operators “moving” through virtual worksite scenarios.
But, next generation digital tools in the heavy equipment industry are quickly evolving, and their acceptance is being driven by an audience growing increasingly fluent in using digital tools, taking the virtual classroom to a whole new level.
A new digital workforce. VR training by way of equipment simulators is one solution that is finding greater acceptance in the training world, particularly given the problematic restrictions of operating a business during the current COVID-19 reality.
“There is a new industrial workforce emerging that is being made up of gaming, internet and smartphone power-users who expect to be engaged by training technologies rather than the traditional classroom methods. Simply putting a PowerPoint on a screen, or courses online, is not enough anymore,” says Jim Colvin, president and CEO, Serious Labs, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, a global leader in full motion VR simulators for heavy equipment like mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs), cranes and forklifts.
With a global shortage of skilled labor, which has only been exacerbated by COVID, employers are finding it more important than ever to recruit, engage, train and assess employees using leading-edge modalities like VR and XR. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) surveyed nearly 1,000 contractors for its 2020 Hiring and Business Outlook finding that while contractors were optimistic about future demand for construction, they were troubled by labor shortages and the impacts those shortages were having on their operations, training and safety programs, and their bottom lines.
The survey found that more than half of respondents saw inexperienced workers and workforce shortages as a major challenge to the safety and health of their workforce. It also found that firms were taking a variety of steps to invest in the training and development of skilled labor to attract qualified workers.
The Deloitte and Touche 2019 Global Human Capital Trends study reported that 84 percent of respondents felt the need to rethink their workforce experience to improve productivity. When it comes to safety training in a traditional classroom setting, most students were not being presented with engaging or effective opportunities to develop proper skills to be productive from day one on the job.
Immersive learning alternatives. Immersive learning, however, offers what is being seen as a more engaging alternative.
“Training technologies like VR are built around active learning principles and the premise that a person learns better, faster and retains more by ‘doing’ rather than passive classroom learning,” says Colvin. “By creating real-world scenarios that can be practiced and tested in a safe yet realistic environment like VR, new and seasoned operators can be objectively assessed and measured.”
Through virtual scenarios, students have the ability to improve motor skills, understand objectives and think critically in any situation the operator might encounter on the job site.
“Simulators work any time, and you can train on them safely despite a pandemic. You don’t need to be a master trainer to operate them and assess somebody,” he says. “They generate an objective report on their own and in many cases, training via a simulator is simply superior because it provides you a report card based on data.”
Training in a consequence-free reality. Simulators replicate high-risk or emergency situations where operators will develop the reflexes and motor skills essential to their job.
“While going through the VR scenarios, they learn awareness and readiness that can only be found through experience, and not by simply imagining what it might be like if something went wrong,” Colvin says.
In the access and construction industry, the technology replicates how equipment such as MEWPs, cranes and forklifts, for example, operate in real life.
According to Colvin, many users experience total surprise and shock at the realism and immersive nature through the combination of a VR headset and a full-motion base when they try it.
“First time users of our MEWP operator training simulator often forget they are not actually at height and will hold on for dear life, lowering the boom before stepping off,” he says.
For equipment such as MEWPs, the immersive nature of VR puts the trainee into a simulated environment, and the “sense of presence” lets them interact as if they are on an actual worksite. Trainees are able to learn and hone critical skills at height through trial and error in the fully immersive, yet consequence-free, environment.
“Immersing a trainee into a dangerous situation risk-free gives them an actual worksite experience that can’t be replicated in real life. By letting them make mistakes in a virtual world, they learn respect for the equipment and learn the right way to operate it which makes them safer and more competent at the same time,” Colvin says.
“In the virtual world, you gain a familiarization with the equipment, and an understanding of that equipment’s behavior before your experience on the actual equipment or while refining your skills,” he says.
The rise of man-to-machine integration. Telematics technology has seen a rise in popularity and global adoption in the heavy equipment industry over the last few years. The technology helps to answer questions that change the way machines are serviced, like helping rental stores schedule preventive maintenance or offering “descriptive data” to allow rental companies to know what’s going on inside of the machine. Telematics, however, is not only about measurements for equipment; they are now being applied to human-machine interaction as well.
“Telematics is a measurement that communicates data to the rental company and to the end user so the machines can be used better. It’s looking at things like maintenance, charging, how it’s performing, utilization, etc.,” says Darren Verschuren, international account director, Serious Labs and former rental store trainer.
“Operator telematics looks at the same types of things. It’s about data to the rental company and to the end user to use the machines better, but for the most important element, which is for the person pressing the buttons,” Verschuren says.
“Operator Telematics” is the latest type of telematics to reach the access equipment industry referring to the measurement of different human variables through technologies such as virtual reality and extended reality training. These types of functions can be applied to training on equipment to help assess how an operator is using the equipment. That data can then be analyzed, and the operator’s movements can be refined and corrected for proper usage of the machine.
According to Silicon Valley-based tech company StriVR, which develops soft-skill onboarding solutions in VR for customers like Wal-Mart and Verizon, the unique data collected from VR-based training has provided insights traditional learning methods never have, including attention metrics indicating levels of engagement and potential on-the-job performance. Human performance is now measurable.
Simulators complement in-person training. By understanding how errors and failure to observe best practices can impact the equipment, job site or the safety of others, trainees gain insight through simulated training into how to improve their skills. Trainers, meanwhile, are better informed when it comes to clearing operators for the job site and can better direct additional training to improve areas that are still untrained or lack consistency.
A trainee’s session results are then compared against a performance baseline determined by the customer. “This baseline is informed by industry standards, but minimum expectations can be raised or lowered depending on the values and demands of each customer,” Verschuren says.
By measuring performance in quantifiable and practical terms, trainers, project directors, contractors and companies can gain useable insight into the risk or value an operator brings to the job site — avoiding the risk of placing unprepared operators on live equipment prematurely.
Deloitte and Touche stated in its Global Human Capitol Trends annual report that leading companies increasingly recognize that next generation technologies such as VR, XR and artificial intelligence (AI) are most effective when they complement humans, not replace them.
“When you think about it, all training is a simulation,” Verschuren says. “Any time we are learning to do something, we are trying to simulate what is being done. The difference between a human trainer and a simulator training is the quantitative data that is generated. Would you rather have a person assessing how you did or hard data that shows you exactly what you did and where you need to get better at it? In many ways, a VR simulator is a better teacher, although you will still need a real person to certify you as a final step.”
On the simulator, every movement an operator makes on the machine in virtual reality is recorded.
“From when a person moves the joystick, we can look at the data and ask things like ‘Are they looking around? Are they driving the machine correctly? Are they using it safely? Are they using it efficiently?’ We record every single bit that they do, and we enter it into our system to see what level they’re on. Then you can continually assess that person, train that person and monitor their progress all the way through. You will effectively have a safer, more efficient operator by the end of the project than what you had at the start of the project,” Verschuren says.
“There’s definitely a place for in-person training. What we offer is an enhancement,” Verschuren says. “There will always be people who prefer to be trained on real machines. And if you’ve never driven a machine before, I think you should drive a real machine for the first time. But we’ve got the rest of the person’s life to measure them, to improve them and to do things after that course.”
Better results from trained operators. Virtual reality is becoming more accessible around the world and, in the heavy equipment industry, the virtual classroom will enable students to learn from their mistakes safely, without the risks of damage to the equipment or injury to themselves.
“Access equipment, like MEWPs, are inherently dangerous. The moment you’re off the ground, the danger increases,” Colvin says. “We never forget that. We see the ability to train and measure the competency of an operator as the future of operator training and certification, particularly in the COVID-19 world and beyond. Ultimately, a safe and competent operator means increased productivity and reduced incidents on the actual job site, which is in everyone’s best interest.”
How to offer VR operator training
Virtual reality (VR) operator equipment training is a technology that’s still breaking ground in the American equipment and event rental industry, but the next-gen training has seen an uptick in popularity in other parts of the world.
The UK, in particular, is catching on to the high-tech simulations. The mobile elevating work platform (MEWP) operator training simulator from Serious Labs, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for example, is being used on the largest infrastructure project underway in Europe, the HS2 railway, for operator assessments.
Align JV, a joint venture of three leading construction companies, is carrying out short 30-minute, coronavirus (COVID-19)-safe, VR simulator training assessments of thousands of MEWP operators on the HS2 job site. Digital reports are providing data for review of the operators’ full range of skills, knowledge, attitude, training and experience, and highlighting key areas where improvements can be made.
Darren Verschuren, Serious Labs’ director of international business, recently shared how rental companies in the United States could start offering their customers VR operator training like their European counterparts.
Rental Management: It sounds as though VR operator training is taking off — how is it going?
Darren Verschuren: Yes, we are having a lot of interest, especially in the UK. We’re working alongside traditional training and enhancing it, improving it. Contracting companies are finding it safer to use from a social distancing perspective right now, and they are also seeing efficiency, effectiveness and bottom-line improvements too.
Rental Management: What advantages would a small North American rental store have in offering VR training?
Verschuren: Look at it this way, wherever the simulator goes, you’re effectively taking the world’s greatest practical training area with you, in the space that a wheelchair would take up. Maybe you have a small yard, but in VR, you literally will have the largest practical training area in the world. It’s consistent and always the same. It allows even smaller stores a new avenue for capabilities and revenue potential that they may never have imagined.
Rental Management: How would a rental store offer this type of training?
Verschuren: If a rental store has a customer they want to focus on, they could start by offering their customer’s trainees a “skills assessment” through the simulator and that creates the “where are we” picture of the trainee. Once you know their operators’ skill levels through our Operator Telematics Report, then that’s where the training comes in to improve their skills where they need help.
Rental Management: Once they have a baseline, do they continue to monitor those operators?
Verschuren: Yes, you have to do some analysis on the first assessment to find out where their weaknesses are, and this only takes a few minutes. It’s normally quite clear whether it’s in operation, movement of the machine, not looking around, etc. So, you do some analysis, and you create a plan for each person based on what their original answer is. For example, if the operator doesn’t look up correctly, there are programs built into the simulator specifically to solve that issue. So that person would focus on those scenarios while in between assessments. Then after a given amount of time, four weeks, two weeks, six weeks, whatever, they’ll redo the same assessment they did initially, and you should see a different outcome with some improvements.
Rental Management: Is there a direct correlation between how people perform on a simulator and how they do on the actual equipment?
Verschuren: Absolutely. If someone is awful on the simulator, they will be awful driving in a real machine, because it’s the same controls. It’s just a virtual world. If that person is bad, you identify it in the simulator, and then you give them extra supervision in the real world. It follows the adage, if you don’t measure it, you can never improve. Maybe 80 percent of the people are very good, but there’s 20 percent of the people who have a real problem. And you’re able to completely focus on those people and correct their problems. That saves you from accidents, damaged equipment, lost time and it could save a life.
Rental Management: Does someone from Serious Labs help with getting started and understanding how to do these assessments?
Verschuren: It’s a subscription-based service, so what we’re selling, effectively, is a partnership. You’re not buying the metal, you’re buying an insight into the expertise and the support that we can provide. And it’s more affordable than most people think. To get started, those in North America can reach out to Wade Carson, senior vice president of products, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melinda Zimmerman-Smith is the president of Lighthouse Communications, Canadian Lakes, Mich. To learn more about Serious Labs, visit seriouslabs.com.