Simulation-based Training and the Great Supply Chain Disruption

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The global supply chain disruption is one of the foremost issues impacting today’s port terminal operations. According to S&P Global, container dwell times for many ports reached near record levels. Worse yet, these bottlenecks are expected to continue, with some experts calling it a new reality that will necessitate a fundamental change to the world’s shipping infrastructure.

Regardless of how long it may last, the truth remains that we find ourselves immersed in a global disruption. Ports are working feverishly, with many regularly breaking single-day material handling records. Yet despite this, nearly 13% of the world’s cargo remains in limbo at any given moment.

Leveraging new simulation technology to improve responsiveness

Terminals are taking varying approaches to this challenge and increasing capacity any way they can. With extended hours and storage capacity comes a need for new equipment operators and higher productivity – all while maintaining rigid safety standards.

Equipment operator training simulators are supporting terminals in overcoming many of these obstacles. Indeed, simulation-based training has proven to be a fast, effective, and cost-efficient method to identifying, developing, and upskilling the workforce while improving port terminal safety.

But what exactly is it that makes simulators so effective, and how are ports leveraging them to address the current supply chain crisis?

Even under normal conditions, port traffic can vary tremendously. In times of unpredictability, ports must react quickly to spiking activity. Marc Desmons, owner, and founder of MarCrane Port Equipment Consultant Organization (and former director of equipment engineering for TIL, Limited) has seen how simulators allow ports to prepare for such conditions.

“When vessels converge all at once terminals get extremely busy and the need for crane operators rises sharply,” he said. “Then are days when the need isn’t as urgent. This fluctuation makes it difficult to retain a steady staff of crane operators. Simulators provide a tool to cross-train port workers and create a pool of well-prepared part-time operators from which they can draw as demand increases.”

While hiring more operators is a viable approach for some terminals, others focus on training to improve overall operator productivity. “The fact is, there is a direct correlation between productivity and simulation-based training,” says Julien Richer-Lanciault, CM Labs Simulations’ Product Manager, Training Solutions.. Richer-Lanciault adds that after just a few hours on a simulator, crane operators can reduce cycle time by as much as 30 seconds. This translates into roughly 4 additional moves per hour – a substantial gain in productivity when projected over the course of a day, week, or month.

With the ability to replicate a wide variety of real-world conditions and challenges, simulators not only have a positive impact on productivity – but safety as well. This is paramount, given the whirlwind of activity at today’s busy terminals.

Preventing the preventable

Worksite accidents are a leading cause of productivity loss. But because incident data tied to equipment operators is generally included in a broader set of safety metrics, it can be difficult to quantify. Still, experts as well as terminals that rely on simulation agree that there are significantly fewer accidents associated with simulator-trained operators.

“Simulators have contributed to a notable drop in operator-related accidents and damage,” Richer-Lanciault noted. “Operators trained on simulators are more focused, confident, and knowledgeable equipment, which contributes to savings associated with equipment damage and maintenance.”

Drivers at all levels can benefit from on-going safety training, as a means of ensuring operational sharpness. For ports and other equipment-reliant industries, such as construction and forestry, removing equipment from the frontlines for training – despite the consequences – is impractical, costly, and counterproductive. Fortunately, simulators provide the next best thing: hands-on experience without machine downtime.

“Port terminals with simulators can continue to operate at full capacity while still developing and upskilling operators,” said Desmons. “With a simulator it’s easy to book time to reinforce safety practices, hone skills, correct bad habits, experiment, and try new things. What’s more, simulators create reports that allow us to objectively measure and track each operator’s safety and productivity improvements.”

Closing the gap between simulation and reality

To be effective, simulators must closely replicate the actual crane and worksite environment, including the cabin, controls, machine movement, load reaction, and the surrounding area. Indeed, today’s sophisticated simulators immerse students in a virtual environment that is remarkably close to reality, from weather and lighting conditions to machine controls, behavior, action, and reaction. With a wide variety of exercises, operators in training develop muscle memory while gaining familiarity and confidence before climbing into the seat of an actual piece of equipment.

“Realism is the key to this effective training experience,” said Richer-Lanciault. “Training is not just about basic controls. Operator skills development must correlate to what they are going to hear, feel, and see in the real world. We work with original equipment manufacturers around the world, as well as their expert operators, in order to capture the features and movement of the equipment. And each day we conduct more than 20,000 automated tests to confirm that the feel, vibration, and sensation match the actual equipment as closely as possible.”

The value of flexibility

Desmons suggests that port terminals who wish to test the waters start small before moving up to larger, more sophisticated, higher performance simulators. And he is confident that once experienced, port terminals will want to add multiple simulators to their training arsenal.

“A large terminal can benefit from two or three simulators. One designed specifically for ship to shore, one specifically for the yard equipment, and maybe another for shuttle caterers or other equipment,” he said. “With a larger training capacity, terminals can train more operators for different types of equipment simultaneously. A small terminal, with three or four ships to shore and ten to twelve RTGs in the yard, can benefit from a versatile simulator that trains both ship-to-shore and RTG operators.”

Ultimately, when researching a best-fit solution for improving responsiveness, safety, and productivity, the key is to work with an advisor that can help you determine the optimal path to improved, more profitable training and operational outcomes. 

“Simulators are an investment – an important investment. But the payback is substantial and is realized in a very short period,” concluded Desmons.

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