Transforming Equipment Operator Training with Motion-Based Simulators

MEWP and forklift simulators could change how learning happens.

Operating an aerial lift, aka MEWP (mobile elevating work platform), is a complex, high-risk task. The same goes for operating a forklift. In 2017, forklifts were involved in 9,050 nonfatal workplace injuries or illnesses with days away from work and 74 fatalities. 

Operator training is one of the best ways to protect workers from harm. And just as construction is evolving, becoming more digital and technology driven, so is operator training. 

United Academy is leading the charge with motion-based VR simulators. It currently offers boom lift and scissor lift simulators, which were developed in partnership with Serious Labs. And it just completed development and testing of a forklift simulator, the first of its kind, which will hit the market in coming years. The simulator can train someone on a counterbalance forklift or a rough-terrain forklift, depending on which set of controllers is plugged into the hardware.

“Our objective is to address an industry need, which is reducing the number of incidents year-over-year of fatalities with forklifts,” said Bal Guerrero, director of United Academy. 

Ultimately, VR training could help address another need as well — the need for more operators. It could potentially interest young people who hadn’t considered a career as an equipment operator. 

Tools for training, competency assessment and recertification

A motion-based simulator lets an operator-in-training get a feel for the equipment in a risk-free environment. “It’s a great tool for helping new operators to be ready before they go to the actual machine,” said Guerrero. It can also help employers assess the competence of a certified operator.

“When an operator arrives at your location, they may bring their certification card, but you really don’t know their level of expertise. You can put them through the simulator for 25 minutes and the simulator will give you an assessment of how competent they are and how safe they are using the equipment,” said Guerrero.

Simulators come in handy for recertification as well, a process that should take place every two years. Operators can get recertified through a combination of online training and a competency assessment on the simulator. 

Motion is key

Unlike other simulators, the simulators offered by United Academy are motion based. That’s critical for two reasons. First, they let operators experience how it feels to operate the machine and get used to the movement and resistance involved. Second, they’re less likely to cause “simulator sickness,” which is similar to motion sickness.

“When you match the movement that is in your eyes with a little movement with your body, your body thinks it’s okay,” said Guerrero.

The case for simulator training 

Simulator training and testing offers multiple advantages for companies, including these:

  • Keeping equipment in use. “When you have to use equipment for training or competency assessments, you’re taking it away from production,” said Guerrero. 
  • Conducting more in-depth skills assessments. Companies typically conduct competency assessments in a parking lot or a confined space and can’t put operators through any real trials other than moving the equipment up and down or to the side. “That’s not ideal,” said Guerrero. A simulator will throw different scenarios at the operator, requiring them to move through obstacles or complex positions, giving the trainer a much better understanding of their skills and where they need to improve.
  • Reducing wear on tear on equipment. Green operators may bump into objects or stress the hydraulics with rough handling. Simulator time can improve their skills before they have the chance to do any damage, which can cut repair and maintenance costs.

Accessing the simulators 

There are several ways in which companies can access United Academy’s MEWP simulators. United Academy’s blended training programs include simulator training along with online classes and a practical evaluation — no classroom attendance needed. United Academy’s “train the trainer” classes teach trainers how to instruct, evaluate and test operators as part of their own in-house training program and include lessons on using the simulators for training, assessment and recertification. The simulators are also available for rent (by the week or month) or purchase.

Adoption is likely to increase as more companies learn about the simulators and see their value. In 2019, United Academy demonstrated the MEWP simulators at more than 80 locations throughout North America, including trade shows, safety forums and 

worksites of major customers, from power and gas companies to government agencies to airlines. More than a dozen customers kept a simulator for 30 or 60 days.

“They really like them. They’re really excited about it,” said Guerrero.

United Academy recently presented the MEWP and forklift simulators to a group of training directors at OSHA. “They were very impressed,” said Guerrero. 

Just as construction technologies such as offsite fabrication and 3D printing will never fully supplant digging in the dirt, simulator training will never fully replace instructor-led training. That said, technology will inevitably change — and improve — how workers learn. 

“Innovative products for effective learning is the future,” said Guerrero.

To inquire about having United Academy demo MEWP simulators at your worksite, call 844-222-2345

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

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