Simulators create immersive role-playing environments for team-based lifting training

Posted on 14 July 2010

By Arnold Free, CMLabs Simulations

The multi-role interactive simulation is performed in a classroom setting with simulator stations for the operator, signalman (banksman), slinger and instructor. The team must work together to perform lift operations.

The multi-role interactive simulation is performed in a classroom setting with simulator stations for the operator, signalman (banksman), slinger and instructor. The team must work together to perform lift operations.

Over the past 10 years, most fatal work accidents on offshore oil and gas structures have involved the use of lifting equipment. The central causal factors are human error. In particular, the common factors are related to poor work planning and supervision. Mistakes are made during operations because workers are not always properly prepared for real work conditions. Although lift operations teams may be well trained in individual tasks, they are often not equipped with the necessary planning and teamwork skills.

This safety message is not new, and offshore industry groups such as API, NORSOK, OMHEC and the UK’s HSE have been working toward building training standards that define requirements for the entire lift team. But are the training organizations applying these new standards? Are they training the entire lift team to work together? Are they training not only for routine operations but also for difficult conditions and for the challenges of non-routine engineered lifts?

Overwhelmingly, the answer is no. In some cases, these skills can only be learned on the job. Teamwork is not built in a classroom; it is built through experience, challenges and adversity. But how do you train the team in collaborative planning and operations when access to operations equipment is nearly impossible? Moreover, it is too dangerous to use operations equipment to practice for emergency situations and non-routine or engineered lifts.

Let’s take a step back and look at what other industries are doing when presented with similar training challenges. The commercial aviation industry is obsessed with safety. Training in operations planning and teamwork is the main reason the industry has achieved remarkable safety standards. The medical industry also recognizes that planning and teamwork skills reduce surgical errors and result in significantly fewer complications after medical procedures.

As a personal example, a family member of mine recently underwent laser surgery to improve her eyesight. Although this is a routine operation performed thousands of times a year in North America, I was encouraged as the medical professionals checked and rechecked her optical prescription using different methods, discussed the procedure with their patient and each other, and verified everything once again before performing an irreversible procedure on the patient’s eyes. It was clear this team had been trained to work together, to plan, to discuss, and to check and recheck. Clearly, these professionals have learned important skills, but they have also participated in a great deal of team training.

Training is provided on the job, but more and more this type of training is provided in simulated environments. Medical teams train together just like flight crews have done for decades – using simulation-based interactive technology.

Using simulator-based training, even elements like wind, changing sea-states and shifting loads can be factored in and crews can learn to work through these challenges.

Using simulator-based training, even elements like wind, changing sea-states and shifting loads can be factored in and crews can learn to work through these challenges.

A recent article in Chief Learning Officer magazine drew important conclusions from studying industry surveys related to simulation-based training. One significant finding was that simulation-based training was seen to have a positive effect and was recommended for ongoing or expanded use in every case. In equipment maintenance, for example, it was found that trainees achieved the same level of proficiency in nearly 60% less time. In truck driving, one hour in a simulator was found to be equivalent to four hours on the road, and operators used less fuel.

Moving forward, the oil and gas industry should consider how people learn and how to adapt learning methods to today’s students. For example, by the time the Net Generation (those born approximately between 1995 and 2005) are young adults, they will have spent approximately 10,000 hours playing video games, 20,000 hours participating in online social networking, 20,000 hours watching TV (on the internet), 10,000 hours using cell phones (which are basically small computers) – but only 5,000 hours reading.

It is a mistake to expect these students to effectively learn in a traditional classroom setting and/or using conventional e-learning tools.

The Net Generation requires more diverse and more engaging learning methods. Classroom learning will have its place, but this needs to be combined with multiple instructional approaches – learning games (aka, serious games), interactive simulations, on-the-job and conventional learning by making mistakes. Due to retirement, the offshore industry will lose significant numbers of highly skilled workers over the next decade. How will the industry engage and effectively train its next generation of workers?

PNI Training Centre in Stavanger, Norway, and CMLabs Simulations in Montreal, Canada, are taking steps to address the future training needs of the offshore industry by developing team-based learning using interactive simulation technology.

Using simulators to train drilling and crane operators is not new. The unique aspect is they’re training the entire lift operations team (crane operator, slinger, signalman/banksman) in an immersive role-play environment by combining operator simulators with serious-games learning techniques.

The first systems were installed by CMLabs and its partner Antycip Simulation in June 2010 at PNI’s campus in Stavanger. PNI will begin delivering team-based simulation training classes by September 2010.

Traditional simulation-based lift training addresses only skills development for the crane operator. With team-based simulation training, the operator, slinger and signalman (banksman) must all work together in a simulated offshore environment. Each team member plays a role: The crane operator works in an immersive simulator, the signalman walks around the rig and performs radio communications and hand signals for the operator, and the slinger inspects the lifting gear and load and performs safety inspections. The team must work together, from job planning and operations to after-action review.

Team-based exercises involve the operation of several types of cranes on drillling rigs and intervention ships and cover a wide range of exercises, including routine lifts, personnel transfers, blind lifts, engineered lifts, subsea template placements, and handling of tubulars, risers and bottomhole assemblies. Two simulator systems can even be linked to perform tandem lifts.

The crane cab station provides a realistic environment for the  crane operator, with actual crane controls and immersive visuals. The  crane cab pod is linked to the other crew members of the lifting  operation in a multi-role simulation.

The crane cab station provides a realistic environment for the crane operator, with actual crane controls and immersive visuals. The crane cab pod is linked to the other crew members of the lifting operation in a multi-role simulation.

These exercises provide a varied and lifelike environment with real challenges. The team must work together to find faults and react quickly when the unexpected happens. This translates into real skills on the job. The team learns to plan the tasks, work together, communicate and review the lift – what was done right, what mistakes were made and how they can do better. It is an engaging training program in a classroom environment that leads to a high level of skill retention.

The team-training system works by linking each of the roles in a simulated environment. The job always begins with a lift plan and toolbox talk. Each team member must then perform start-up and safety checks, just like on a real job. The slinger and signalman control their avatar’s movements from their own training stations. They can walk around the rig and observe all operations.

Just like a multi-player PC game, navigation and all interactions are controlled with a gamepad. The crane operator is in a cab-like enclosure with real crane controls and can see the slinger and signalman performing their duties. While the operator is performing safety checks on the crane and working through start-up procedures, the signalman is securing the worksite, and the slinger is preparing the load for lift: inspecting the lifting gear, the load carrier and the load itself.

When everything is checked and the load is ready, the slinger can sling the load and the lift proceeds just like on a real rig. The signalman performs hand signals for the operator, and all team members are in constant radio communication. During the operation, the instructor observes the team’s performance. He can create fault conditions and monitor and log incidents. The simulated environment provides both typical faults, such as damaged lifting gear, out-of-date inspection certificates or crane faults, and the team must spot these problems.

More challenging situations can be created, such as high winds and changing sea-states, sling breaks, shifting loads and even crane system failures. The instructor monitors how the lift crew works through these challenges. The simulation logs all incidents during the training operations, and these can be reviewed by the team once the job is complete. This provides an effective, consistent and objective evaluation of team performance. It also provides an effective learning tool.

This interactive learning framework provides a new approach to developing skills and experience. It combines role-play with skills training and practice on a virtual work site. It involves applying theory and learning by doing, and it is physiologically engaging – all needed for training crews today and the younger generation tomorrow.

With this kind of training, organizations can more objectively measure student performance and train more students in classroom settings. It lowers training costs and provides the next-best thing to performing the actual work on the job. It also allows organizations to train teams on how to spot hazards or react instinctively to unexpected failures.

Simulation-based training will play an important role in preparing operators and support personnel for the work challenges ahead. The technology is rapidly being adopted by offshore, port, construction, mining and other industries. Simulation has been proven to speed skills development, improve learning retention and create safer operations teams. By combining simulators, interactive instructional content and team-based learning, we create physiologically engaging environments where students are immersed in the work.

This article is based on a presentation at the IADC Lifting & Mechanical Handling Conference & Exhibition, 13-14 July 2010, Houston.

Arnold Free, vice president of CMLabs Simulations, has more than 20 years of experience in building simulation and engineering software solutions. He holds a Ph.D. in engineering from Cambridge University, UK.

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