Simulators offer flexibility and time savings at a price to suit a range of budgets. Alex Hughes reports
Traditional simulator-based training has proven to be an efficient way to train new employees on very complicated pieces of handling machinery. Nowadays, the market for such tools has diversified, with more compact solutions available alongside more sophisticated solutions.
“Simulators offer flexibility, time saving and also help to eliminate the risk of damage during the training sessions,” says Fredrik Johanson, global sales manager of ABB Ports.
When simulators are used, he adds, different weather and other operational conditions can be introduced into the training sessions at any time, irrespective of what the weather might be doing outside. Furthermore, when a need to repeat a particular exercise is identified, this can be done over and over again until the operator becomes confident they have mastered the situation. By doing this, it is possible to tailor training programs to suit every trainee.
“Terminals also use simulators when assessing potential new operators,” says Mr Johanson. “Indeed, this is often a very important reason for a terminal's decision to acquire a simulator in the first place.”
While Mr Johanson says it is difficult to say exactly how much faster training is for new employees when using a simulator, from the terminal’s point of view the big benefit is that the majority of the training can be conducted prior to letting them loose on the real thing.
“Training can continue throughout the commissioning of new cranes at a site. When the equipment is finally ready to enter operation, the operators will be too, which allows the terminal to ramp up productivity faster than would otherwise be the case,” he says.
Indeed, if you compare how fast an operator achieves an expected productivity level - measured in the number of moves per crane hour - training using simulators makes the learning curve much steeper and the desired level is reached significantly faster.
“There are cases in which the time needed for training was reduced from several months to a few weeks by using simulators,” says Mr Johanson.
And it isn’t one size fits all for crane simulators. GlobalSim, a long time traditional crane simulator manufacturer, recently introduced its Essential Crane Simulator, which is a budget version of its Full Mission Crane Simulator.
According to Bart Williams, sales and marketing vice president, although the cost of high-end simulators has dropped considerably over the last decade and more, premium simulators are still out of reach of many ports that could benefit from using them for training purposes.
“The cost of our entry level professional systems can be as low as one fourth the cost of a high-end system,” he says, adding that potential customers are port authorities, terminal operators and training schools.
In terms of functionality, the Essential product line can be provided with a subset of the Full Mission software. Or, as an option, full functioning software can also be included.
However, says Mr Williams, it is in the hardware where the biggest difference is to be found. This translates to fewer screens, thereby giving a smaller field of view, while also not including a motion base. In contrast, the company's premium simulators include a motion base with long travel in the appropriate axes for port cranes and are robust enough to support multiple displays.
Asked whether the Essential is aimed at training new operators or to give refreshment courses to experienced employees, Mr Williams says it is primarily the former.
As for how much time somebody would spend on an Essential simulator before handling the real thing, he notes: “This really depends on the individual training plans for different ports. Typical training on the simulator ranges from a few days to two weeks.”
But a simulator can never replace the actual equipment for final training, even if simulator-based training reduces the time needed for ‘real life’ training. “Some training on real equipment should always be included before the operator starts working in real production,” says Mr Johanson. “Simulators, however good they are, cannot wholly replace all on-the-job training.”
GlobalSim estimates that its customers can reduce training time on actual equipment by 50%, but agrees that sims will never fully replace use of real equipment for final training.
In terms of practicalities, after an orientation of about one hour, students can perform various exercises without an instructor. Nevertheless, ideally, an instructor would be present to guide the student and avoid unnecessary wasted time or bad habits from setting in. On completion of the scenario, the trainer can then evaluate the trainee’s performance based on the recordings from the simulator to see, for instance, if more training on the particular scenario is needed.
DP World Yarimca Liman İşletmeleri A.Ş uses three ABB Ports simulators to train new staff. The operator says that hands on training with real cranes is not done, since this might lower the performance of the equipment and reduce its operational efficiency.
“We are obliged to use simulators because the cost of using operational equipment is so high and we want to prevent any on the job accidents whilst using it,” says training executive Ekin Yaşar Yavuz from the terminal's Human Capital Department.
However, simulators are used only to train new employees, not to give refresher courses to existing employees.
“In order for employees to be able to operate terminal equipment in a short period of time, they need to spend at least 60 hours in the simulator to get sufficient training,” says blue collar trainer Kenan Balcı.
Mr Yavuz points out that the simulator return on investment calculation is generated by being able to use the equipment to simulate operations, to mitigate possible workplace accidents and to be able to track the employees' abilities at beginner level. However, insufficient time has so far passed to allow them to calculate exactly how much money simulator training has saved the company.
Asked how realistic training on a simulator can be, Mr Balcı says that on quayside gantry cranes and on RTGs, it is about 80% of what would be faced when operating the real thing.
“Simulators in comparison with operating real equipment provide 60% of similar functionality,” he says. “As far as we are concerned, simulators can provide all the basic training needed for on site equipment.”
Return on investment in simulators can be achieved through faster training, reducing the likelihood of on-the-job accidents and through better productivity being reached sooner. According to Mr Williams: “It has been said that avoiding one accident can pay for a simulator many times over.”
“It should also be pointed out that, in the case of both training new operators and refreshing the skills of experienced operators, the real cranes remain available for use while the operators undergo their training programs, since the majority of the training can be done with the simulator,” adds Mr Johanson.
Safety is another important aspect that should not be forgotten. With simulators it is easy to learn processes and procedures, which also produce an overall increase in the safety of container handling. If the operator is not familiar with automation functions, simulator training offers excellent opportunities to learn how they work and, significantly, to also learn to trust them.
“Using simulators and investing in operator training is important in making container handling safer, greener and more productive,” Mr Johanson says.
THE REALITY OF THE VIRTUAL WORLD
The degree of realism of the simulator varies a great deal between units, but ABB believes its simulators are “as close to real operation and conditions as you can get”. They are, it says, extremely realistic and training can be performed in authentic operator environment.
“Our simulators are equipped with real PLCs, which are the same as those used in the cranes. Thus, it is not only about how authentic or realistic the simulation is perceived, but also about how authentically the simulation has been implemented,” he says.
In the case of simulators for remotely operated and automated quay cranes, modern simulators are extremely realistic since the training can be conducted with the same Remote Control Station that is used in real operation. This means that the operator will be familiar with every single function button and joystick he or she will face in real operation.
When it comes to the simulator for cabin-based quay cranes, rubber-tyred gantry or mobile harbor crane operation, ABB Ports' simulators even mimic real crane motions and dynamics, giving operators a feeling they are actually sitting in the cabin of a real crane.
“Feedback we have received from several customers is that the training with our simulators is efficient and very realistic,” says Mr Johanson.
Simulators can also be adjusted to match the specification of each customer’s cranes and all the automation functions are also available in the company's simulators.
GlobalSim’s entry level simulator offers a different level of realism, something that people have questioned in the past. “Certainly, for a truly immersive experience on a simulator, the more realistic the better,” says Mr Williams. “However, think of the early video games. The graphics were poor and the screens were small. But, the user could still become very engaged and emotionally involved. On the other hand, it is possible for a simulator to have entertaining, Hollywood level realism but not be a good training solution.
“The key is to incorporate sufficient realism. Thereafter, you are looking to provide exercises that focus on specific training objectives; to measure and record performance in a tracking database; and to review performance with the students. And the GlobalSim product line provides all these functions,” he says.
MOVEABLE SOLUTIONS TO SIMULATOR TRAINING
In Canada, the Maritime Employers' Association (MEA), which provides crane simulator training in Montreal, recently acquired two Essential Crane Simulators (ECS) from GlobalSim.
Sébastien Lambert, the director of Manpower Training, notes that while the MEA's training centre is located in Montréal, the organisation also trains employees from the ports of Trois-Rivières/Bécancour, Hamilton and Toronto.
“Before our new acquisition, employees from those ports were coming for Montréal for a whole week, which proved a bit expensive. Now, we can easily ship the ECS to those different ports and train as many people as we need to. Once the training is done, the simulator can be shipped back to Montréal,” he says.
The smaller simulator gives the flexibility of training three people at the same time on three different types of equipment, because not only does the MEA have two ECSs, but also one full cabin system. The joystick boxes, Mr Lambert adds, are inter-changeable.
In addition, Stephane Morency, the new chief executive of MEA wanted the organisation to have greater visibility through deploying the more mobile simulator at various port events and career days, allowing potential future employees to try out the simulator.
“Compared to a full cabin simulator that offers a motion capability, the ECS is substantially cheaper, too,” says Mr Lambert, adding that final cost greatly depends on the overall package chosen.
Nevertheless, he points out that the ECS offers exactly the same software and the same control panel as a fully functional crane simulator. The main differences between the two systems are the visual aspect (a seven screen 65” display compared with a single 55” display) and the motion sensation, which is absent on the slimmed down variant.
Mr Lambert concludes: “For a new employee, it takes between five and ten days of training prior to them taking the controls of a real crane, although this depends on the type of crane and the type of cargo handled. However, on a simulator, you can't replicate depth perception, nor the levels of stress found in a real working environment,” he says. “One thing is to control the swing motion of the crane on the simulator, another is to do it in a much more stressful live environment."
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