Quality Magazine

Simulation: Making It Real

April 1, 2003
Manufacturers are spending big bucks on simulation programs to expand and upgrade employee training.

During difficult economic times, the highest paid, most experienced employees are often some of the first to be let go. In some cases, the employees that remain do not have the experience or skill level to complete the tasks as quickly and accurately as their former colleagues. Worse yet, the remaining employees are often asked to do more work. Computer simulation is one method that manufacturers are employing to improve the skills their employees need to run the shop-floor equipment.

An advantage of simulation is that companies do not have to buy equipment for the sole purpose of training. In addition, because the equipment they do have is not being used for training, it remains in production and the risk of damage during training sessions by inexperienced users is eliminated.

“What we do is simulate complex equipment to allow people such as service technicians, process workers or others to train on the operation, maintenance and repair of this equipment without having to be physically at the equipment itself,” says Phil Ellett, president and CEO of RealVue Simulation Technologies (Austin, TX).

Ellett explains that customers can save more than 90% in traditional training costs because they don’t have to buy equipment. But how does simulation compare with learning on the actual machine?

Types of training

Both Ellett and Becky Banasik, systems engineer at RealVue, say that simulation training is considerably faster than traditional classroom and hands-on training. The speed of the training depends on how quickly the student can grasp the subject matter.

Banasik explains that simulation accommodates the pace of the user. Experienced users familiar with the equipment, but in need of updated training, can go through can go through the simulations at a pace that is commensurate to their level of experience. A worker who needs more instruction can take longer to go through the simulation program, and neither worker impedes the other’s training.

RealVue simulation software is based on software developed during a seven-year period by Lockheed Martin Corp. The software has been tested by 30 major military entities around the world, according to Ellett. For instance, before simulation training was used for a particular radar system by the U.S. Navy, the training typically took two weeks. During that time, the technicians found and fixed an average of nine faults. With the transition to simulation training, the class now takes four days and students find an average of 29 faults.

Third time’s the charm

Simulation training can be carried out in three stages. Ellett suggests that the first stage of a training regimen include all the pertinent instructions, embedded in a step-by-step guide. In the second stage, the instructions are disabled, forcing the students to rely on what they recall from the first simulation. In the third stage, the instructions are disabled, and the students are tested or certified for the task at hand.

As for ease of use, Banasik says she promises clients that after going through the simulation, workers will be able to walk up to the piece of equipment and run a procedure without having ever seen the equipment operate.

Banasik attributes part of that success to the realistic graphics. “The simulation looks and functions exactly like the machine,” she says. “Also, the worker can go through the simulation more than once.”

The simulation can also be used on-the-job, Banasik adds. “We don’t have to think of this as just training,” she says. “Workers may have 200 procedures that they need to remember, some of which they don’t go through on a daily basis. They can use simulation to do a quick refresher to remember, ‘this is where I go, these are the safety points I need to remember.’ They can use the simulation to practice and then walk up to the machine and do it.”

To keep things true to life, the computer cursor changes its shape to reflect the tool being studied. For instance, if an Allen wrench is used, then that is what the cursor looks like.

Information that may be needed by the employees can also be embedded in the simulation. For example, if a cover plate is removed and bolts that should be present are missing, the instructions could inform the worker what needs to be done in that instance. Unlike using the actual equip- ment, if a student makes a mistake during the simulation process, the software can be developed to allow for those mistakes. Ellett says that with software used to train a pilot to fly a 777, if the pilot does not operate the controls correctly, the plane will crash. But, that is not a bad thing.

“You want the pilot to crash,” says Ellet. “If you make a mistake in the simulation and you keep making mistakes, it will take you down a mistake-ridden path, which is exactly what would happen in real life.”

Banasik adds, “Training departments have to be smart. Blended solutions for training are really important. Blended solutions have training directors saying, ‘This is the piece that can be done on a computer. This is the piece that’s really important to do in person.’ People need to be able to distinguish those, and we just give them a platform and an opportunity to do even more of that training online.”

TECHTIPS

  • SIMULATION SOFTWARE CAN SAVE MORE THAN 90% COMPARED WITH TRADITIONAL TRAINING BECAUSE ACTUAL EQUIPMENT IS NOT NECESSARY.
  • ALLOWING STUDENTS TO MAKE MISTAKES CAN BE BUILT INTO THE SOFTWARE.
  • SIMULATION DOES NOT ONLY HAVE TO BE TRAINING, IT CAN ALSO BE ON-THE-JOB HELP.
  • SIMULATION LENDS ITSELF TO THE LEARNING PACE OF THE USER.