With all the excitement over virtual reality (VR)and how it can change the workplace with high tech opportunities, mining company Vale has partnered with innovation leader NORCAT in Sudbury to carry out a very necessary part of business.
Jason Bubba, NORCAT’s director of training, said Vale is launching a new program that takes advantage of NORCAT’s extraordinary training centre to do something quite ordinary – training new hires.
“What we’re building right now are virtual reality pre-operational check programs for three pieces of underground equipment -- for a forklift, for a scissor deck and for a utility vehicle,” said Bubba. “So these pieces are for entry-level workers so they can be trained on the equipment that they’re first going to use when they go to work for Vale.”
He explained that it is not always easy or opportune to pull mobile equipment from production to do training. More often than not, the equipment would be returned to production work before enough training could be done.
“What we have right now is a little bit of a perfect storm. We have new technology being installed at mines. We have an aging workforce. And we have a lot of new entries into the mining space. It is a changing workforce absolutely and a lot of new hires coming in,” said Bubba.
“Because of that, the mines are looking at new and innovative ways to train their workers -- A- more efficiently, and -- B- more proficiently so that we can get them more proficient in their tasks before they’re on the job.”
He said NORCAT is working with Vale’s learning and development department to create new mechanisms to train workers before they get underground at the mine site.
“This is not to replace the hands on tactical training in the field. It is there to augment that.”
Bubba said new workers will be sent to NORCAT’s training centre on Maley Drive in Sudbury where they will work with an instructor to learn the operating theory for a specific piece of mobile equipment.
He said the virtual reality is not the only element of the training. He said it is one of the tools used as part of a blended training program.
For example, he said, the workers will learn how to do a pre-operation check, known in some circles as the 360-check, by doing a complete inspection of the vehicle. This includes inspecting all the safety devices, checking all the fluid levels as well as the mechanical integrity of a vehicle.
Bubba said this is one example where the virtual training comes into effect.
“We are developing these virtual modules where the individuals will actually don the VR headsets which puts them into the virtual Vale mine. They will feel like they are standing in that underground environment. They will see that forklift sitting in the middle of the drift.”
Bubba said the workers will learn the complete pre-op checklist and then use the VR training devices to practice the procedure to make sure they get it right; that the equipment is safe and ready for work.
As part of the VR experience, NORCAT technicians have developed VR software that is as realistic as possible. Bubba said NORCAT technicians capture photographic images of every aspect of the mobile vehicle. From there the equipment is recreated in a realistic 3D environment for training purposes. For example, a worker checking out mobile equipment would be able to inspect an engine dipstick to check oil levels.
“Yes, so whatever the worker does in the real world they can perform that in the virtual world,” said Bubba. He said safety is one of the key factors in the virtual training. That includes the ability to find things that are wrong.
“Once we get them to that level of competency, as per the Vale standard, as per the OEM standard and as per safety regulations, and they’re competent and good at that, then we try the fun stuff. We start throwing in fault conditions.”
Bubba said it is one thing to know how to do the procedures correctly, but it is something else when the workers have to point out problems, such as a leaky hydraulic hose or faulty brakes on the vehicle. He said the problems will be created in the 3D virtual reality version and will require attention from the workers being trained. At that point the trainees will be taught how to respond correctly when things go wrong, he explained.
“All those variables will be programmed in there so essentially a fault condition for all of the items in the check list will have an option to also be in a fault condition,” he said.
Bubba said the faults will be random and varied so that the training will not become predictable.
“It is easy to do when everything is right. Is it easy to do when things aren’t right? We have to make sure we identify that. The ultimate thing is that they can understand and can recognize a fault condition so that they can address that,” Bubba said.
“That’s where the virtual world really shines,” he added.
He said the VR training can take getting used for some workers. Bubba said younger workers tend to be more accepting of new technology. But he added that putting on the VR headset for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time can be disorienting for some people because it shuts off all outside stimuli. He said the training is set up so that workers are not subject to long periods using the VR equipment.
An important aspect said Bubba is to provide training that is engaging and enjoyable for the worker. He said this is especially so for younger workers, who have grown up with changing technology.
“They’re not only open to this type of training but they’re really engaged with it. When we’re engaging people with the experience, and they’re enjoying it, they’re going to retain that knowledge a lot better.
“Then they go home and they talk about this experience. They’re telling their friends, they’re telling their family. That’s what we want. If they’re sharing that story, they’re retaining the information but they also make mining look more exciting.”
The new training program was showcased by NORCAT at the 2020 PDAC annual convention (Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada) that was held in Toronto.