Heavy Equipment Simulators and their Function in the Construction Industry

Do heavy equipment simulators prepare operators to be proficient in the field? That answer and more are below, along with our novice attempt to complete an entry-level simulation.

When Sanders Brothers Construction invited us to test their CAT heavy equipment simulator, we were excited, to say the least. With limited real-world excavator experience (give or take an hour in a Komatsu digging and filling holes on a job site), we weren’t sure what to expect.

More importantly, it got us wondering – how helpful are these simulator tools in preparing operators for work in the real-world?

Read on to learn more about how the construction industry is coming to rely on these simulators more and more – and don’t forget to watch the video at the end and see how we did on our own test run.

The Demand for Heavy Equipment Operators

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, more than 50,800 new heavy equipment operator positions will be added to the U.S. workforce every year until 2031. Unfortunately, the demand for these skilled positions is quickly outpacing the entry of new and qualified operators. 

With the need for skilled operators outpacing supply, industry titans like Sanders Brothers are investing in simulators to increase the training speed of new operators. By investing in these simulators early on, they are investing in their people and the future of their company.

In addition, Technical schools across the country are offering Heavy Equipment Operator (HEO) programs where students can obtain the skills required to safely operate heavy equipment. At Dorchester County Career and Technology Center in South Carolina, their program begins with immersive training through the use of SimLog heavy equipment simulators for the backhoe, bulldozer, excavator, and articulated wheel loader.

Do Heavy Equipment Simulators Translate to Real-World Proficiency?

The short answer is, yes. Heavy equipment simulators, hands-down, prepare operators for real-world scenarios and improve their proficiency. The longer answer is that levels of proficiency may depend on what type of simulator is being used, how many hours the student uses the simulator, and the type of work they’re performing on job sites.

Simulators don’t just provide the “look” of the operator’s environment, they also provide the “feel” via mechanical and physical feedback. Through vibrations and shock, the joysticks and pedals offer information on the environment being simulated. This type of physical feedback gives the trainee “muscle memory” of the tasks needed to operate the equipment.

When asked, equipment operators tell us that, without a doubt, the time in simulators helps them perform their jobs better out in the field. For construction companies, that results in tangible time and money savings.

Types of Simulators

CAT offers two types of simulators. Their Full Simulator offers convertible OEM controls, 3-4 screens and realistic motion during operation. The SimLite, by contrast, is a compact experience that is easily portable. All CAT simulator systems offer:

  • Authentic CAT® controls
  • Multiple training exercises built with CAT expert operators
  • Hundreds of measurable benchmarks to track learner progress
  • Exclusive machine walkaround training
  • Open training modules to create site specific processes or recreate dangerous scenarios for safety training.
  • Multiple languages
  • SimScholars™ curriculum available for blended learning; online or in-class
  • 24×7 technical support
  • Manager’s workstation option
  • Accessories available by model: VR, Motion System, Trailer Mount Package, Rolling System, Turn-Key Curriculum

Other simulator makers, such as Vortex and SimLog, are available depending on your existing and anticipated needs, budget, and goals.

Simulators vs Traditional Training

When thinking about attracting and recruiting a younger workforce, investing in simulators can be a strategic pivot that makes sense. They offer long-term cost efficiency and operational flexibility, unparalleled by traditional methods of training. Moreover, younger trainees are often more familiar with the interfaces found on simulators, making it an ideal teaching mechanism.

Whereas conventional training relies on heavy machinery that requires access to the equipment, substantial fuel consumption, favorable weather, comprehensive insurance, and the availability of skilled instructors. Each requirement adds a layer of complexity and cost, influencing return on investment (ROI) calculations significantly.

Simulators appear to be a game-changer in construction training. They allow construction companies to circumvent many of the logistical and financial hurdles of traditional methods. Weather conditions and fuel costs become irrelevant. Training occurs under controlled, repeatable conditions that ensure consistency in skill development. Overhead is reduced as training is made more available and teaching more flexible.

But even with all these benefits, simulators aren’t meant to replace actual seat-time, at least not yet.

Are Simulators the Precursor to Automated Vehicles on Job Sites?

There’s a lot of buzz about autonomous construction equipment. We asked Bill at Sanders Brothers what he thought about it all. He isn’t ready to embrace it just yet.

Autonomous construction equipment, such as dozers, excavators, load carriers, and haul trucks, are driverless machines that are used to perform a variety of jobs on construction sites. These autonomous drones are typically controlled by an operator via a remote control system. 

Remote control technology allows operators to safely run equipment from outside the cab, minimizing the risk of injury and providing them with a clear view of the work in real time.

It would make sense that proficiency in a heavy equipment simulator would translate to the easy operation of autonomous equipment, given that their interfaces are so similar.

And some manual operator positions that fall under the “dull”, “dirty”, or “dangerous” roles, according to CAT, have already begun transitioning to remote operation.

According to an article by U.S. Bridge, companies like Teleo are “actively recruiting more remote operators” and advertising these positions as having “significantly better working conditions, making the job safer and more comfortable.”

Many, like Bill, aren’t ready to embrace this new generation of construction. But, like women entering the Citadel, whether we’re ready for it or not, it’s going to happen; autonomous vehicles are coming to a construction site near you. Too many corporations, like CAT, are investing in the technology for it not to progress.

Our Time with the Sanders Brothers’ Heavy Equipment Simulator

Attending an ASA meeting in Charleston, I was sitting across the table from Fred, a long-time employee of Sanders Brothers Construction. He was talking proudly about their in-house training program (26 weeks I think) and their heavy equipment simulator. I listened and asked a few questions. I was really excited to get the call a couple weeks later inviting me to take the simulator for a spin at their Harley Street survey building.

It’s hard to miss the Sanders Brothers’ location when you’re driving over 526 toward Rivers Avenue. Even more impressive, though, is driving into their lot. 

After a little conversation, a walk through the survey building, and a couple of introductions, we got a look at the simulator. I was expecting only one terminal, but there were three or four of them and each was occupied by a young man, with and without a VR headset.

Bill, who kindly agreed to let us do some training, offered a brief tutorial. Then, it was right to putting on the VR headset to see what I could (or couldn’t) do in an excavator.

A Novice and a Heavy Equipment Simulator

Wearing that headset is a little disorienting at first. Warned about potential motion sickness, I was happy when I didn’t fall ill. I was aware of and made nervous by my inexperience, while also trying to recall the functions of the joysticks and foot pedals. Up, down, open, close, left, right, forward, backward, rotate. It reminded me of when I tried to learn how to waterski. For both, I wasn’t very graceful and I looked a little awkward.

Eventually, I was digging to grade at an OK pace. The small audience that I could hear, and not see, was very supportive. I successfully dug a trench, in front of a manhole, and dumped the dirt in the area designated by bright red lines.

Once that part was completed, I was tasked with parking the excavator. I confidently used the pedals and quickly went into reverse, forgetting to look if anyone was behind me. Rookie mistake.

I parked and the tracks were almost where they were supposed to be. So I slowly reversed, turned, lined up, and parked perfectly, according to the bright green track indicators. Tutorial number one, 100% completed.

I asked if they’d send me out into the field. There was a pause. Then a polite “you may need a few more times in the simulator first”. Fair enough. 

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