We trained to operate heavy machinery from the safety of a simulator

If your day job doesn’t regularly involve bulldozers and pickaxes, you probably had very little reason to visit the Bauma Conexpo Africa that took place last week.

The event focuses on “construction machinery, building material machines, mining machines, and construction vehicles”, and filled the Johannesburg Expo Centre with enough machinery to move heaven and earth.

Since our jobs involve pounding keyboards and not pavement, we would have skipped the event entirely if not for a unique invite from Barloworld Equipment, a dealer of Caterpillar (CAT) equipment. They invited us to actually operate some dangerous machines…. kind of.

Instead of doing “in-iron” training – what CAT calls the process of training new operators by letting them use the actual machines – we’d instead be sat in front of a simulator. For the past seven years CAT has used specialised simulators to train up operators, saving time, money and human limbs.

These aren’t the fly-by-night simulation games like Farm Simulator, though, but are instead custom-made proprietary hardware and software units made specifically for CAT.

The completed simulator consists of an almost exact replication of the controls present in the CAT machine. The hope is that, after about a week of training on the hyper-realistic simulators, the new operators can jump to in-iron training seamlessly.

The simulator (left) and the type of vehicle it simulates (right).

We had a go on two different simulators: one for an articulated truck, and one for a digger. The articulated truck is laid out much like an automatic car and was surprisingly simple to get used to.

Before we were allowed to move an inch we had to do some vehicle checks. If you thought the five-point check from your driver’s licence was bad, this is on an entirely different level.

The in-simulation renders of the CAT machines are detailed (literally) down to individual nuts and bolts – all of which need to be check for defects before heading out.

After receving some assistance, we were finally allowed to go for a drive. We were thrown right into the “final exam” portion of the simulation, in which you need to complete a circuit in a set amount of time while avoiding damaging the vehicle as well as maintaining an efficient use of fuel.

While we did fail, we were told we did especially well for a first timer, and we didn’t flip the truck like another would-be operator did.

Next was a continuous track digger, and, if we’re still equating these simulators to videogames, an extreme jump in difficulty. Gone are the familiar trappings of cars – the steering wheel and pedals – and instead we found a set of levers and joysticks.

The levers independently control the tracks, so pushing them both on in one direction will move you forward, while pulling them in opposite directions will result in a turn, easy enough. The joysticks used to operate the claw was far more complicated: each joystick is assigned various directions for both the claw and the arm it’s attached to.

We managed to get a few scoops of dirt into the awaiting truck, but mostly failed beyond that. We also gave the simulator a stress test by, well, being ridiculous.The physics of the simulation really impressed us: dirt you scoop out of the ground becomes a hole that you can feel when you drive over it (the simulators have actuators to simulate movement from within the cab) and you really do get the sense that you’re behind the controls of lots of horsepower, metal and money.

Aside from what we experienced with the simulators, actual operators and their employers get a lot of mileage out of the systems. After certain tests and exams the simulator will generate an excruciatingly detailed summary that can show both teachers and learners where more work needs to be done. This helps correct bad habits and makes sure that only competent individuals are entrusted with multi-million rand machinery.

Virtual Reality and Automation

While our main focus was the simulators, we did get to see a few new technologies CAT is implementing in its heavy machinery.

The stand at Bauma had several Samsung Gear VRs set up. While these were only to show off a 360° view of a mine, CAT is working to incorporate systems like it into their operations.

Visitors try out the VR mine tour.

The next innovation CAT is trumpeting isn’t one technology, but an entire system they call “MineStar”. The MineStar system does everything from track machines, to remote control certain vehicles and even (to extend the videogame comparison even more) “Health”. Health relates to a machine’s condition and lets its owners and operators check on the condition of the assets from anywhere in the world.

While being able to operate these machines via a simulator was a unique experience for us (and we enjoyed it immensely), the implications of it are far more important.

The push from CAT to digitise training that, in the past, had to be done in far more dangerous environment is one we applaud. Sure, at the end of the day it is probably done to save a company money, but it also helps people get qualified to work and prevents the like of us operating potentially lethal equipment.

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