Q&A: digital training provider CM Labs simulates the job site

Technological advancements are helping create the next generation of heavy equipment operators.

Technology is changing every aspect of construction. As computers become smaller, cheaper and more powerful, they are being implemented in every corner of the sector. In the case of heavy equipment operation, developers can create powerful simulations that help new operators prepare for the field without fear of hurting themselves, other people or machinery. We reached out to Quebec-based CM Labs to learn more about how these training systems are developed and where the technology is heading.

SiteNews: What services does CM Labs provide for the construction sector?

CM Labs: For more than 25 years, CM Labs has focused on heavy equipment operator simulation training. With over 1,000 simulation installations in 39 countries, CM Labs offers an incredibly realistic experience through patented Smart Training Technology and a motion-enabled platform. Our Simulation Training Packs provide a comprehensive immersive simulation learning program for the safe training and assessment of operators.

CM Labs Smart Training Technology and motion-enabled platform provide users with an incredibly realistic experience. CM Labs offers three types of platforms: a desktop version, a motion-enabled single-screen option, and a fully immersive experience with up to five-screens.

CM Labs sells Simulator Training Packs for use with the platform for earth moving and lifting equipment. Clients can also benefit from our consulting services, SimGuide with our SME for integration, curriculum and to make the most of their CM Labs training. Additionally we offer engineering services that can add additional exercises (such as IBEW and ETA have their own curriculum on Boom Truck), white label training solutions (such as Tigercat), as well as full turnkey solutions through our Partnership Program for OEM’s such as John Deere.

CM Labs says faster, more powerful computers have made it much easier to simulate job sites and equipment. – CM Labs

How has the technology for training simulators changed since CM Labs was founded in 2001?

Over the past 20 years we have seen the following changes: 

  • Improved graphics resulting in better learning retention and more realistic scenarios.
  • More efficient CPUs and GPUs allow us to be more accurate with our models and our physics
  • Higher resolution, lighter, thinner displays mean simulators can be more immersive and portable
  • Improved data processing capabilities allow us to gather additional insights from trainee performances, assessment, and operator benchmarking.

What are the most difficult environments or industries to simulate?

Generally, environments where you are able to deform terrain (soil) can be very challenging to simulate and very few simulators get it right. When simulating deformed terrain, you must take into account dozens of soil properties, like how much air content is found within the soil, how much does the soil spread out compared to other materials, what are the moisture properties of the soil, etc. Then, when you have large fields of deformable terrain, this requires lots of computational strength to compute at over sixty times per second. Our soil simulation is the most accurate simulation of its kind and part of what makes our simulation training so unique and accurate.

Aerospace is generally very difficult to simulate accurately. The laws that govern fluids like air are very complex and have many variables. This makes it require lots of processing power to simulate in real time, since all of those variables must be updated sixty times per second. Then, when you factor in the mechanical properties of the plane itself, with wings that are not perfectly rigid, the difficulty of simulating this environment increases exponentially.

Has demand for this type of training increased?

Absolutely. Over the years simulation training has become more normalized, in part due to the successes of flight simulators (one of the first industries to adopt simulation training). In the aviation industry, simulator time counts towards the time required for the pilot to acquire their pilot’s license. The training industry has taken note of that success, and over the last ten years CM Labs has continued to grow and remained the leader of training simulation. We hope to lead the way into a safer future where simulation plays a regular role in operator training.

What is the Vortex platform and how was it developed?

Our innovative simulation platform, Vortex Studio is the only software on the market that provides the complete package of high-fidelity real-time physics, native support for equipment controls and hardware integration, and user-friendly tools for the creation of rich virtual environments. Along with real-time simulation, engineers can model individual components, including cable systems, powertrain, ground interaction, steering, suspension and brakes, for more accurate simulated vehicles, with real-time simulation of deformable terrain. It is with cutting edge technology, that our patented Smart Training Technology was developed for our simulation training.

The company has a 65-person research team of engineers, PhD physicists, engineers, and mathematicians. – CM Labs

CM Labs’ Smart training Technology accurately replicates real-world machine and materials behaviour,  resulting in effective, efficient operator training. Comprised of proprietary and patented algorithms, the simulation delivers careful modeling and reproduction of machine data that interact with the environment and materials just as they do in the real world. Its precision is backed by more than 20,000 automated daily tests and ongoing research and development. Trainees gain a better feel for engine transmission, crane boom, and jib bending/torquing, as well as wire rope and crane block spin and environmental factors (like wind, precipitation, day and night settings). Learning hook and load management, reducing pendulums, snags, and collisions, operators improve cycle times, and which can ultimately reduce production costs. 

What are some of the advantages of this kind of technology?

Operator training is a critical component of improving safety and limiting liability for all heavy equipment users, especially utilities. Incorporating simulation into a training program offers a safe haven for failure without consequences while easing the transition from theory to practice. CM Labs simulation offers a sustainable solution that prevents novice operators from developing negative habits from unrealistic training situations, which could potentially cause dangerous problems when operating real equipment.

CM Labs solutions present a safer alternative for initial training while mitigating the increased fuel costs and wear and tear that typically result from novice handling. A cost-effective method to train and assess operators, organizations can standardize operator-training practices by tracking, measuring, and benchmarking performance. Trainees practice challenging real-world operations in complete safety, while key operating performance metrics (such as safety violations, load control, and operational efficiency) are objectively logged and recorded throughout training.

The full-motion platform is tied, in real-time, to the simulation and accurately replicates much of an operator’s day-to-day experience: driving on uneven terrain, engine vibrations, throttle, etc. Trainees improve their muscle memory ultimately to be “one” with their equipment: feeling the platform bowing down as they drill or dig, pitching at risk of tipping, or feeling engine vibrations through the seat to avoid choking the throttle. The simulation replicates true engine sounds (including fails and stalls), variable engine RPMs, horns, fork scraping and shifting, alarms and other work site sounds that are important audio cues for safe, steady, deliberate, and precise operations.

Today’s simulators are data and analytics-driven, which is essential to optimizing training time and correcting unsafe behaviours. This means that training techniques move away from a checklist approach, and instead target specific skills that make people more efficient and safer. The company’s patented Smart Training Technology provides real data accuracy and reporting insights. Companies and trainers now can use data collected for each student to analyze past behaviour and then apply that information to create specific learning paths that develop the most appropriate skills. This approach also makes training more personal. With data analytics, training can tackle skill deficiencies for each person, which elevates their individual skill sets to a much higher level, rather than applying a single learning objective across an entire classroom. 

What sort of research goes into the development of a specific training program to ensure that it gives the user a realistic experience?

CM Labs has its roots in R&D, and has a 65-strong in-house research team of engineers, PhD physicists, engineers, and mathematicians. The company has ongoing collaborations with international educational institutions including McGill University and research industry partnerships with NATO, Bombardier, Leddartech, and CNH.

Where does CM Labs see the future of simulation training going in the coming years?

Whether simulated practical testing in North America will be accepted by certification bodies as equivalent to practical testing on real equipment is yet to be seen. But a 2020 study by NCCCO suggests that this type of testing is “a highly reliable measure for predicting a passing score on an actual crane.” 

In Germany, however, the Statutory Accident Insurance (DGUV) published guidelines approving the use of simulations for certification. Watch this video to learn more about use of CM Labs simulators in operator training and certification in Germany. 

Simulators are certainly an effective way to practice for certification testing. A number of CM Labs customers report seeing higher success rates for operators who have practiced for a certification exam on a simulator than those who practiced only on live equipment. The Electrical Training Alliance uses its crane simulator to prepare operators for the certification program through Electrical Industry Certifications Association (EICA). The simulation exercises, inspired by the certification requirements, mirror exact applications, such as auger control, and pole control and setting, rather than generic scenarios. This translates directly into higher success rates as trainees are better prepared for both written and practical exams. 

In the future, we will likely be seeing training paths customized to fit individual operator learning profiles. 

While other industries, like aviation, have approved the use of simulation for certification, the construction industry, except in Germany, has not. CM Labs solutions include simulation exercises to prepare for certifications for forklift, as well as the NCCER and NCCCO testing for cranes. Electrical Training Alliance (ETA), the curriculum arm for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), collaborated with CM Labs to add additional specialized training scenarios for boom truck and crane for utility industry certifications.

With the current labor shortages and energy costs, these latest developments in simulation certification look promising for health and safety governing bodies, such as OSHA, and other organized labor groups to consider as alternatives to measure the proficiency of operators.

A whole team of workers train on CM Labs systems at the same time. – CM Labs


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