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More Than A Game


Spending up to $25,000 on what many euphemize as a video game might seem ridiculous, but that's exactly what Lafarge North America has done. With the

ADAM MADISON

Spending up to $25,000 on what many euphemize as a video game might seem ridiculous, but that's exactly what Lafarge North America has done. With the help of Simlog and Caterpillar, the company recently installed a Cat 777 haul truck simulator at its Roberta Plant in Calera, Ala.

ìIt's the largest quarry that Lafarge has in North America,î says Randy Johns, training coordinator. On an average year, it produces 12 million to 13 million tons. This 24-hour operation employs approximately 50 operators running a fleet of nine haul trucks, one 777 water truck, four 992 wheel loaders and some smaller pieces of equipment. The haul trucks cost Lafarge roughly an arm and a leg to maintain. Calculate the cost of diesel, tires and brakes, and the one-time cost of the simulator is a drop in the well.

It sits in a corner room of a centralized building, where all operators can report for training. There's a chassis and a seat facing a 42-inch monitor. The simulator program is PC-based and links to mounted controls by USB. Controls include an accelerator, brake, emergency brake, retarder, steering wheel, shifters and hoist controls. These are real controls from a 777 provided by Caterpillar, which also has rights to the software. This is what drives the costs up, says Mike Keffer, Simlog director of marketing. The software runs around $6,000 and can be complemented with lower-end Logitech controls.

ìThey are very inexpensive, and they are very portable, but you sacrifice the realism,î Keffer says. ìBut the training value ó the skills transfer ó is very much the same.î

Drivers virtually maneuver the digital terrain that mimics Lafarge's second largest quarry in Ravena, N.Y. Simlog took photos of the site and used Lafarge's topographical data to create a realistic virtual quarry.

There are six different modules to work through, each focusing on tasks critical to efficient operation. For instance, the simulator records brake temperatures and engine overspeed when ascending and descending hills. Drivers learn that they can decrease brake temperature by using a retarder as an engine brake and how that saves money. And each week operators aim to beat their best numbers recorded by the program.

Ultimately, Johns wants to focus his operators on dollars. ìWe need them to understand that this is not their daily driving vehicle. It is Lafarge's truck,î Johns says. ìAnd as a condition of employment, they must operate Lafarge's truck by Lafarge best practices in order to achieve maximum uptime from the truck.î

There's also a safety element to the training. For example, one simulation focuses on corridor driving. Drivers maneuver through a tight lane between barriers. It includes S-curves and 90-degree turns. This helps drivers understand the width and overhang of the truck. Each time a barrier is bumped, the computer records a nonfatal collision.

Other simulations are more production oriented. The quarry-driving simulation allows the driver to chart a course between two points determined by the software. Other simulations require the driver to back the bed beneath a loaded wheel loader or dump into the crusher feed hopper. The final simulation is a full haul cycle.

These serve as refresher courses for the already trained professionals working at the quarry. There have not been any new hires since the software made the simulator's debut at the Roberta plant, but Johns predicts that this will be a valuable tool for screening new employees or training those without haul-truck experience. He says it will be cheaper and safer to train the novice on the simulator first.

For new hires without experience, Johns says: ìWe are going to put you in a simulator before we even let you ride with an experienced operator. I am going to let you see what it is like to sit in a truck that is 12 feet wide.î

Keffer says the simulators help develop core skills under ideal circumstances. Once those are achieved, it is time to move a trainee into the cab. It is designed to complement training with a real vehicle, as there always will be limitations when putting a computer against the real thing.

One current limitation is a lack of pedestrians and other quarry traffic in the simulator. Johns has been very vocal in regards to this, and Simlog seems to be listening. Keffer says future releases of the software may include such a feature.

Software and related technology are forever advancing. For instance, a pedal feature has just been made available to an excavator simulator. Simlog now is offering free updates to software users seeking this function. The company also is looking at new ways to collect and analyze user statistics, another critique from Johns.

ìWe are continuously seeking feedback from our customers about what to add to the simulation software that will better prepare students to become safe and productive operators,î Keffer says. ìHowever, the objective will always be to keep our strong instructional emphasis on essential core skills.î

Johns says that even with minor limitations, he is well satisfied with his simulator. In the near future (when the economy hopefully turns), Johns hopes to see a Cat 992 wheel loader simulator sitting next to the 777 simulator. Because when you're talking real lives and dollars, operating heavy machinery is not a game.