Conversion kits allow Immersive Technologies’ basic simulator models to be conveniently and quickly set up to emulate different types of equipment. Shown here is Immersive’s version of the Sandvik DD420 underground drill.
Conversion kits allow Immersive Technologies’ basic simulator models to be conveniently and quickly set up to emulate different types of equipment. Shown here is Immersive’s version of the Sandvik DD420 underground drill.
The increased realism offered by new-generation equipment simulators makes them highly effective teaching tools—if they’re applied in a carefully planned, controlled and measured learning environment.

By Russell A. Carter, Managing Editor

As the downhill slope of the mining cycle grows steeper amid softening commodity prices, shrinking capital investment and slackening demand, several recent state-of-the-industry studies have emphasized “higher focus on innovation” as a necessary tool, among others, for building a stronger industry—one that’s prepared for and capable of maximizing returns when the next boom hits.

The latest of these studies, Deloitte’s Tracking the Trends 2015, states that “…it is rapidly becoming clear that innovation can do much more than reduce capital intensity. Approached strategically, it also has the power to reduce people and energy intensity, while increasing mining intensity.”

The industry’s current slump appears to offer a sterling opportunity for increased consideration of innovative and useful technologies—in particular, simulator training—as a way to achieve safer, more productive mining at an acceptable cost. Growth in computer processing power, graphics presentation options and advances in instructional effectiveness is converging with vital job-skills development needs to offer a video game-flavored teaching tool that creates a learning environment in which many of the industry’s new hires will feel comfortable, while introducing less tech-savvy workers to the mine of the future. More importantly, simulator training can provide a viable avenue for management to pursue the slump-induced industry goal of extracting higher productivity from a smaller workforce and pared-down production fleets.

In conversations with some of the industry’s top simulator developers, E&MJ learned that although simulator-based training can provide an essentially danger-free route to higher employee and equipment productivity, there is still a measure of risk in the proposition: without advance preparation and full management commitment, a company can find itself paying for what amounts to a very expensive, sophisticated dust collector.

Producers interested in applying simulator training methods are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits that can accrue from close collaboration with the simulator system supplier. Simulation systems developer Immersive Technologies, for example, has moved pointedly in the direction of providing a more unified training solution through its Training Systems Integration (TSI) services.

An off-the-machine view of drilling and mesh installation procedures using a ThoroughTec CYBERMINE simulator configured as an Atlas Copco 282 jumbo.
An off-the-machine view of drilling and mesh installation procedures using a ThoroughTec CYBERMINE simulator configured as an Atlas Copco 282 jumbo.

The concept involves a partnering process that begins by “aligning expectations” for TSI delivery. As part of this process, Immersive Technologies will assist customers in establishing a steering committee composed of representatives from production, maintenance, safety, and training, to ensure that training objectives are chosen carefully and that training produces outcomes with the greatest return on investment. The steering committee engages in an ongoing review of key performance indicators, allowing the training function to compile information needed to update curriculum that targets performance gaps. Immersive Technologies staff will initiate the review and update the process including the analysis of training data and operator performance.

Immersive has, to date, started more than 200 TSI programs worldwide. In December, it reported that a major multinational mining customer had chosen to integrate a fully staffed on-site training solution at one of its mines near Santiago, Chile. Over a three-year engagement at this operation, Immersive’s training staff will conduct operator risk assessments, provide training and support continuous improvement projects targeted at specific mine operational performance gaps. The customer also engaged Immersive to provide management reporting and administration of training materials to standardize the training process.

The Chilean customer’s program will be conducted in concert with simulator training using Immersive’s PRO3-B Advanced Equipment Simulator. This product will also be at the core of a similar program announced in mid-January for a large southwestern U.S. copper producer to prepare its operators for soon-to-be commissioned hydraulic mining shovels.

The PRO3-B simulator is the latest upgrade of Immersive’s PRO3 surface-equipment simulator. The B version employs an Enhanced Trainer Station, a dual-monitor interface that allows a trainer to better manage the simulator during a session.

At the top of the company’s product suite is the IM360 Advanced Equipment Simulator, designed to provide simulation-based training for all machines in Immersive Technologies’ range of mining equipment simulator modules including surface, underground hard rock and underground soft rock equipment. Using its patented RealMove technology, the IM360 allows trainees to move around in a virtual, 360° realistic environment.

Immersive provides an extensive range of conversion kit interchangeable modules for the base PRO3‑B surface simulator and IM360 underground simulator platforms.

Another element of Immersive’s “scalable solution” is its medium fidelity AES Lite simulator, useful for providing early stage training to large groups of operators at low cost. The AES Lite also allows greater utilization of conversion kits, as they can be used on an AES Lite while not in use with a PRO3-B or IM360.

Greg Karadjian, senior product manager at Immersive, told E&MJ that, in addition to rising interest around the globe in general, curiosity about and awareness of simulator training is growing rapidly throughout the North American coal market. In recent months, for example, Immersive was awarded a contract with the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to develop technology covering a range of new simulator features for underground coal mines including full place change support, support for rib rolls, as well as fully configurable geology. It also recently delivered the world’s first roadheader and remote-controlled shuttle car simulation systems to a coal mining operation in Mexico.

In fact, according to Karadjian, there is a major trend under way to move operators away from hazardous locations throughout the soft rock mining sector, and this has been reflected by Immersive’s recent simulator sales to North American and international producers—all of which have involved line-of-sight or teleremote operations.

However, no matter what the application is, both Karadjian and Immersive’s regional vice president for North America, Cory Cook, emphasized that apart from the amazing technology available, an effective simulator training program must be built on a foundation of hard facts and numbers—measuring pre-training performance, identifying operational “targets of opportunity” and constructing a business case that addresses training goals while providing an acceptable return on investment.

“These are not inexpensive machines,” said Cook. “A company must have a solid plan for their use, and an appetite for continuous improvement, to realize their complete value.”

Other simulator systems providers are following a similar approach. Richard Bellengere, executive vice president–operations at Durban, South Africa-based ThoroughTec Simulation, told E&MJ that clients are beginning to understand the importance of a systematic approach, and “want to work closely with a simulator provider so they can be provided with a complete training solution and assistance in developing training programs. They no longer want just a simulator but a step-by-step program that can train an operator from novice to fully trained in an efficient and cost-effective way.”

Bellengere also confirmed that demand is increasing. “Once our biggest order to date is fulfilled for a major client in South Africa, the mine site will have more than 10 CYBERMINE simulators as well as the CBT system as part of their operator training program. A mining major in Mexico recently ordered a CBT system to bolster their existing CYBERMINE simulators. This includes a CBT covering the Sandvik DD320 drill rig.”

“We are definitely seeing greater awareness among mining houses when it comes to the massive benefits that operator training simulators bring to the table. Our CYBERMINE CBT is proving popular, particularly in Africa and Latin America. This introductory level eLearning tool walks novice recruits through a particular vehicle’s basic controls and operation, as well as the environment, site operating procedures and safety checks.”

“CBT and the CYBERMINE Operator Familiarization Trainer (OFT) complement our high fidelity CYBERMINE simulators,” he continued. “The OFT acts as a bridging mechanism and an alternative, limited function base-unit to the CYBERMINE interchangeable vehicle cab simulators. It’s designed to familiarize operators with the identification and operation of the instruments and controls of a specific vehicle. Students interface with the OFT system via touch-screen display and through the various instruments and controls of the replicated cab. Three different modes (Exploration, Training and Evaluation Modes) allow for a complete familiarization, learning and evaluation process, while all users and results can be recorded on a central database.”

“We’re continuously working on ensuring that the simulator and the whole training experience is providing maximum benefit to the operator,” said Bellengere. “This is why we developed a feature such as [underground] drill hole guidelines so the operator can see the ideal hole’s position, both in terms of location and angle into the rock face. This is available during the exercise and post-exercise in report and after-action review.

“The instructor can also use the ‘fly around’ function to go behind the rock face that’s being drilled for closer analysis of the operator’s performance,” Bellengere explained. “This helps operators visualize what is occurring behind the rock face should they apply too much pressure on the drill rods or enter from the wrong angle for instance. This is something that’s unique to ThoroughTec’s CYBERMINE simulators.”

A few years ago, the company launched jumbo drill rig simulators that can perform scaling, mesh handling and bolting functions, based on Atlas Copco’s 282 and Sandvik’s DD420. It has expanded its range of underground equipment choices with several new simulator cabs. These include the Sandvik DL311-7 drill rig, Atlas Copco 235-H bolter and Fletcher HDDR-AC-5.5 soft rock bolter.

In recent months, a ThoroughTec Sandvik DL311-7 simulator was chosen for a new gold mine in Argentina and a Sandvik DD420 scaling, mesh handling and bolting software package for a gold mine in Indonesia. A platinum and palladium producer in the U.S. ordered a simulator for an Atlas Copco S1L Rocket Boomer drill rig, and the world’s largest zinc mine in India took delivery of an Atlas Copco 282 simulator. Elsewhere, a large mining contractor in Asia took delivery of a simulator for an Atlas Copco 282 simulator; this contractor also ordered a shotcrete sprayer simulator based on a Normet Spraymec 1050.

Not all installations are simple and straightforward, however. ThoroughTec recently commissioned a high fidelity CYBERMINE simulator at a zinc mine operated by a Peruvian mining major, high up in the Andes. This simulator is intended to train new and experienced Atlas Copco 282 drill rig operators. The commissioning brought with it challenges due to the mine’s location—more than 4,000 m above sea level. ThoroughTec couldn’t take the risk of delivering a simulator without testing if all the applicable systems were capable of handling the thinner air.

Tests conducted by a specialized military testing facility in a barometric chamber as well as field tests high up in a town near the borders of Chile, Peru and Bolivia, confirmed that the simulator, in particular its projectors and computer segment, were more than up to the task of continuous operation at this altitude.

Simulator equipment and training packages aren’t just the reserve of aftermarket suppliers. As an example, for several years now, Normet, the Finland-based underground support equipment manufacturer, has used simulators in its training academy to teach and improve worker practices in equipment service (hydraulic and automation) as well as concrete spraying and scaling training for mining and tunneling machine operators.

Normet offers simulator training on a number of its underground concrete sprayer products.
Normet offers simulator training on a number of its underground concrete sprayer products.

Normet’s Jaakko Ruuskanen listed the advantages of the company’s simulator training approach:
• A mine’s equipment fleet is not tied up during training.
• There is no risk of accidents or machine failures, and difficult or dangerous situations can be presented safely.
• The low-stress training environment supports quick learning.
• Training involves negligible energy consumption—and no cost for materials.
• A consistent and equal training environment allows operators to demonstrate their skill level and improve their performance.
• A selectable environment allows spraying instruction to take place in a mine or a tunnel site.

In a pre-training scenario, the trainee learns how to manipulate the spraying boom using the machine’s radio control set. After becoming familiar with basic boom movements made with the radio-control joysticks, the trainee is challenged to puncture balloons with the spray-nozzle tip. After gaining skill in spray-boom manipulation, the trainee begins learning basic spraying techniques such as spraying order/path, distance and angle.

The latest generation of Normet’s concrete spraying simulator, developed in association with Finnish simulator builder Mevea, offers high-quality graphics to make the experience more realistic. Visual indicators help the trainee to quickly learn to correct operating methods, such as the use of colors to indicate the thickness of the concrete layer while spraying (i.e, red layer—too thick, green layer-—correct and blue layer—too thin). The new version of the simulator, according to the company, allows concrete flow and behavior to be as realistic as possible, and spray-boom kinematics taken from 3-D models ensures correct simulator environments.

After each exercise, a detailed individual operator report based on performance can be printed out or transferred as a text file. This report includes pertinent, informative pictures and graphs regarding the accuracy of concrete thickness, sprayed concrete quality, nozzle distance and angle accuracy. It also shows material usage, rebound, efficiency (sprayed area per hour), excessive accelerator and concrete usage and costs based on spraying parameters adjusted before exercise.

Trainees who have undergone Normet Academy’s simulator training have shown an average 23% improvement in operator efficiency. Operational improvements include less rebound and usage of accelerator, lower cost per square meter of sprayed concrete and faster cycle times, along with an overall higher quality of sprayed concrete.