Simulators to assist in heavy equipment operator training at Southeast College

The auditorium at the Southeast College’s Estevan campus hosted an excavator this week, and a dozer, and an articulated dump truck. And yet no diesel was consumed, nor ground disturbed. Even so, several people got a chance to try their hand at those pieces of equipment, and several more.

Simulator heavy equipment operator training is coming to Southeast College in Estevan. An example of one of the simulators the college is acquiring was on display Tuesday for demonstration purposes.

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The college is in the process of setting up a heavy equipment operator training program which will rely on the use of simulators in addition to in-seat training on actual equipment.

Jody Holzmiller, vice-president of education and training with Southeast College said, “The college is currently in the process of developing an industry accredited heavy equipment operator course. There are a few programs out there. We've heard from industry that they aren't meeting the training needs. So, we are working towards building our own program.”

She noted the simulator was in Estevan for much of the week. The United Mine Workers of America local 7606 as well college representatives are working together on putting together a program.

It’s still early stages, but she said students would likely get 30 hours per machine in the simulator, and probably 80 to 160 hours seat time in actual equipment.

“We’ll have them choose their two pieces of choice for when they get out into the work experience,” she said.

They’re still working on which equipment will be highlighted, as well as partnerships for the training on actual equipment.

Southeast College is aiming for February 2021 for the program’s launch. The goal is to have a class size of eight, and eight simulators, allowing for a one-to-one ratio of students to simulators. Some of the training will include “soft skills” like safety training, employment skills and resume writing.

The program length may be 16 weeks, but that could change. Tuition costs also aren’t nailed down yet, either, but the last time a similar program was offered, tuition was $10,000 per student. Holzmiller said they’re hoping for that.

Joe Najjar is territory manager for Canada and the U.S. for CM Labs, the simulator’s manufacturer. They are based in Montreal. He said, “Our headquarters, and everything you see here, is made in Canada.”

“This is our go-to solution for community colleges, training organizations, that need to maximize the amount of machines that they can run on the same simulator.

“This can run up to 14 machines,” he said. That includes excavator, wheel loader, bulldozer, articulated dump truck, motor grader, backhoe, and numerous models of cranes. Additional equipment like skid-steer loader, telehandler and forklift are being added.

The simulator is a mock-up of an operator’s cab, with joysticks, pedals and a steering wheel, with the appropriate controls being used for each simulated piece of equipment. On the right is a touch screen which provides engine controls like a start button and throttle.

The trainee faces a 65-inch monitor which can be rotated for either horizontal or vertical presentation. Excavators, for instance, would use a vertical orientation while other equipment like a dozer would be horizontal.

The trainee sits on a moving, articulated seat which mimics the experience of operating, bucking, moving and vibrating similar to a real machine. For instance, when an excavator’s teeth break through the hardpack dirt, you can feel it, quite literally in your seat. The same occurs if you drive over uneven soil.

That’s a key consideration, as a significant portion of operating many pieces of earthmoving equipment is knowing how the equipment feels.

And more significantly, the simulator dirt performs similar real dirt. Loose dirt acts differently than hardpack dirt.

Simulators offer the benefit of training in a safe environment, where green operators aren’t going to risk hurting themselves or others. They can’t damage equipment. They don’t use fuel, or put minimally productive hours on the equipment, either. And if they get it wrong, they can do it over and over again.

This model has been just released this past March, according to Najjar. Their company has been in business for 25 years in the simulation business.

While they offer simulators that use virtual reality, the use of VR headsets in combination with motion bases can induce motion sickness in a small fraction of people. They find that for these applications, using a large screen works best, Najjar explained.

CM Labs works in partnership with John Deere, modelling their equipment and using real engineering specifications so that the simulator performs like real equipment. Similar partnerships are also in place with Manitowoc and Liebherr. But the simulator is more generic in its visualization.

“You have something that’s been vetted by industry experts,” he said.

Estevan MLA and Minister of Government Relations Lori Carr tried it out. She said, “I didn't know what to think when I got on it, but it is pretty real. I felt like I was in a machine, actually running the controls. And when I would hit the ground, my seat would bounce, it startled me. So, I think it's going to be a really great tool, moving forward.”

Carr said: “I truly think that this goes to show what a great partnership can do between the regional college and the provincial government and the community and the industry. This is something that they saw as a need, and they decided to bring it here. We all work together and got it off the ground.”

Najjar said they work with community colleges across the country, as well as the International Union of Operating Engineers.

As for the funding, Carr said, “It's a combination of money from (Western) Economic Development in the coal transition, as well as federal funding and of course, there'll be money putting from the regional college, which is provincial money is as well.”

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