Virtual handling

Port operator DP World has upgraded its training facility to include some state-of-the-art simulators, including a twin-lift.

INVESTMENT: Robin Windley explains how a high ticket item like a simulator is justified in a cost benefit analysis.
INVESTMENT: Robin Windley explains how a high ticket item like a simulator is justified in a cost benefit analysis.

Port operator DP World has upgraded its training facility to include some state-of-the-art simulators, including a twin-lift.

With crane training such a hot topic in the region, and many small contractors reluctant to release their staff for more than the minimum time necessary to get the most basic level of skills it is comforting to know that at least one employer is stepping in to the modern age, with the finishing touches being put on a comprehensive training and development centre - complete with a state of the art twin-lift simulator.

There are some strictly practical reasons why DP-World is making such an investment in training and development. Robin Windley, training developer explained "We are no longer operating as a one million TEU (container) terminal, it's in excess of ten million. What was fine with one million needs to be upgraded.

"Traditionally this industry has used live equipment for the benefit of training operators.

"Now that is fine when you have the spare capacity but obviously when the crane is working, operations take precedent.

"One of the alternatives is to find something that is close to a live real environment and a simulator is about as close as you will ever get.

As with cranes, the two types of simulator broadly fit in to two categories; fixed plant and mobile. The company has just finished installing both types, and the container-based mobile plant was in operation on our visit.

Built into a standard forty foot shipping container, the air-conditioned training room has at its centre five giant screens on all sides, including one almost below the operator.

The operator's console features the joystick controls, buttons, lights and alarms, just as would be found on an actual crane.

Surround speakers provide realistic clanks and bangs as the virtual spreader and shipping containers are lumbered about and the trainee can experience the vagaries of wind, rain and even snow - something even many hours on live equipment could not provide.

The trainee's progress is monitored by a secondary computer system, not dissimilar to the electronic data logs found on many new high-end construction machines.

The PC draws a diagram of how and where the machine was manoeuvred, while also making a record of what controls were used and how ferociously. This information can be used for an accurate appraisal of the operator later on.

While the mobile unit seems ideally suited to the task for which it is being used, the concept was originally designed for another application. "This particular model of simulator is designed for offshore oil and gas use" explained Julian Jones, MD Drilling Systems and the creator of the container-based simulator.

But the custom built DP-World configuration needed a screen below the operator, as they spend a lot of their time looking between their legs, so we had one manufactured.

The first working version derived from the oil and gas simulator took about nine months to build, while adding additional cranes to the software took between three and six months to get an accurate simulation.

As well as catering for all of the different types of crane, be they rubber tyre gantry, rail mounted or quayside cranes, we then had to put in all of the different makes.

Apparently, the various makes have different qualities, a ZPMC moves differently from a Leibherr for example.

Jones elaborated, "It really is mobile. You can plug it anywhere in the world - It supports voltages from 110 to 480. It is just plug and play.

Both training of new recruits and development of existing staff can take place on the virtual machines. As software can be loaded quickly, operators can be made familiar with a new crane, for example, before the unit is even delivered.

"One feature of this type system is that you can quickly change the panniers out for a different crane model, or a different crane make.

So if you have different crane types in the yard you can run quayside crane operations, rail or rubber-tyre gantry operations in just a couple of minutes by changing the panniers over and off you go again," Jones said.

To design the software for such a machine involved a few challenges. "The mathematics behind the movement of the spreader, the swinging and motion were difficult," he explained. "The 3D visual world and also harnessing the container and the spreader so they can hit anything that's on the screen.

While the mobile simulator is impressive, it is only part of a brand-new training facility at Jebel Ali. The fixed simulator, built by T3 Systems, is for all intents and purposes the same as one used for training airline pilots. Housed in a built-for purpose structure, the centrepiece is a giant crane operator box, mounted on four hydraulic stilts.

The cabin is flaked by two projected screens, both angled away from the cab, to give a feeling of perspective. Going up the steel staircase to the box, the simulated roar of the crane's engines gets louder and louder, while the air from the hydraulic rams whistling and hissing adds to the aura.

Stepping inside the crane box, it is absolutely identical to a real crane. If the mobile unit looked realistic, the feeling on the big player is total.

A slight movement from the program controlling the hydraulics gives the feeling of swaying in the breeze while the realistic scrolling leads some trainees to exhibit some of the real characteristics of people working at height and under a lot of pressure.

Cpt. John Pugh explained; "There is a camera in the roof of the simulator, so we can see the expression on the face of the driver," adding that if the face of a new recruit was bathed in sweat, then he probably hasn't a head for heights.

The simulator needs a large server rack to run. In addition it is linked to a series of desktop machines that help evaluate the trainee's performance, in a room in front of the machine, not unlike the music producer's room on a recording studio.

As well as all the telematic data collated on site, other information is also relayed to the manufacturer's headquarters in the Netherlands for troubleshooting and analysis. There are also several PC-based ‘mini simulators' to be used as part of the full training centre programme, set to open later in June.

Sourcing operators has been something of a problem across the industry, but Windley suggests that the simulator can help test the competencies of people from different backgrounds "You do need to be a little more creative and think if there are any parallel industries that we can develop skills from.

As you might expect, the purchase and set up costs for simulators are not cheap, but it is relative to the cost of live equipment being made unavailable for frontline duty. Robin Windley explained:

"If you have the space needed to accommodate it and can put together a strong enough business case to justify buying one, in that case to me it makes an awful lot of sense.

Cpt. Pugh added: "The savings of training people in this way are vast. It's actually a very cheap way of teaching people to drive. Far more efficient than putting them in an eight million dollar crane as [the port operators] don't lose any productivity.

As the port expands, new recruits are being brought in ahead of equipment arriving.

The simulator means the bulk of their training will occur before the plant is installed, meaning that once it goes live, operators can start handling materials very quickly.

"A lot of people are arriving in July, the reason for that is August is when the next load of equipment arrives. The last thing you want is for the equipment to be idle," explained Windley.

"You made a commitment to purchase (the new equipment), you have got to make sure you are using it," he said.

Obviously, the availability of an investment like the training centre is the same as any other equipment in DP World's inventory. "It will run 24 hours" confirmed Cpt. Pugh.

It is hard to see any downside to training in this way, though Robin Windley cautioned;

"No matter how good the simulator is and no matter how higher quality product you are working with. In the back of the individuals mind it is still a simulator. At the end of it you know that if you do crash, somebody can just press the reset button.

However, he stressed that the simulators were part of a wider training programme, which will also teach employees the vagaries of live equipment.

While the fixed-plant simulator might be the first of it's type in the region, training advantages coupled with minimal live machine downtime mean that we would be surprised if it is the last.

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