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NEWS > OCT 2019

Crane Operator Training is on the Way Up: Virtually!

Virtual Reality Simulator Training is Reducing Budgets and Increasing Safety

Scenic Skyway
An operator from Conewago Enterprises practicing a crane certification exam on a CM Labs simulator. Photo courtesy of CM Labs

Crane operators carry a significant responsibility in lifting, moving and placing loads across many industries. Properly preparing crane operators has taken on a whole new approach in skills training. It allows operators to experience reality without the reality itself. With Virtual Reality Simulators, they can experience a wide range of scenarios, including problems and mistakes that could cause serious damage and danger to materials, equipment and people if they happened on real jobs. Keeping it real is the way to increased productivity and significantly lower training costs.

by Al Pirozzoli

Robert Granger belted up as he sat in the tower crane just over 265 feet in the air. The regular operator had called in sick which gave Robert another shot at building his reputation as a “go-to” guy. This particular morning also celebrated his fourth month with this new company. He had graduated up from operating a gantry crane at a shipyard. This was his fifth time in the tower crane and he was grateful for the shot. The day started early due to schedules being accelerated. Perched above a high rise, Robert looked down at the city below and spoke to the site supervisor by radio. His first action was to lift and reposition a massive electrical generator to the east end of the building under construction. Once he had positioned the crane hook the load hung in suspension. At this height he immediately felt slight wind gusts as he began a slow and steady lift, and a change of load direction toward the designated new placement. As the crane arm swung, the load moved into a pendulum effect; swaying side to side, and he found himself in an emergency situation. Attempting to move with the swing, hoping to control it, Robert watched helplessly as the generator hit a concrete truck in the process of pouring. The truck toppled over and workers were hit ... all this in a matter of seconds. Fortunately this incident took place in a Virtual Realty Simulator (VRS) in an enclosed training room session. All the damage had been virtual, but Robert’s blood pressure and breathing considered it real. That’s the key to making crane training real so operators improve expertise and become familiar with unforeseen scenarios. The technology of making the virtual believably real is improving safety, increasing productivity, and decreasing cost and damages in crane operations.

crane operator on a CM Labs mobile crane training simulator
An operator on a CM Labs mobile crane training simulator. Photo courtesy of CM Labs

Upward motion continues

Cranes and their loads continue to get bigger and heavier every year. Today’s cranes are lifting unbelievably heavy objects of all shapes, applying some of the most spectacular technologies. And the more integrated the technology becomes, the more adept the operator must be, especially considering the potential damage to life and materials that are involved in any industry dependent on cranes. Consider the expertise involved in this example: the lifting and placement of the CVBH (Containment Vessel Bottom Head) a bowl-shaped steel reinforced concrete structure enclosing a nuclear reactor base which in an emergency is designed to contain escape of radiation and serves as the final barrier. On May 9, 2014 Georgia Power completed a milestone in the construction of Plant Vogtle. The project team hoisted and positioned the CVBH, weighing more than 900 tons, nearly 38 feet tall and 130 feet wide. It was lifted into place using a 560-foot tall heavy lift derrick, one of the largest cranes in the world, and took approximately four hours to complete. In this type of situation, both the crane and the human factor must be functioning at the top of the excellence scale.

Cranes vary in size, capacity and use and are found at work in a multitude of industries, including: Ports and Ship Terminals; Railways; Manufacturing, Construction and Infrastructure; Military; Oil, Gas, Petrochemical; Mining; Excavation; Off-Shore; Nuclear; Wind Power.

In each of these industries, crane operators work within unique, specialized and specific requirements with various types of crane equipment. Yet with all that herculean crane power on steroids, the mightiest cranes in the world are powerless without a skilled operator. Just as those who trained elephants and other strong animals to lift and move objects, it’s the skill and proficiency of the crane operator that makes all the difference in controlling the power. This was certainly the case when the Pharaohs called for their architects to build pyramids and temples that still rival any modern structure. They needed equipment to do the lifting, but more importantly they needed individuals who were trained and skilled in making the equipment perform.

A heavy responsibility

According to inkwoodresearch.com, the global crane market has been estimated to grow with approximately 5.99% CAGR from 2018 to 2026. The need to lift and hoist isn’t slowing down any time soon. The crane operators who run cranes are required to be certified and qualified by OSHA, in varied degrees depending on the state and industry. Certification covers the basics; set up, understanding load charts, running the equipment and so on. Qualification requires testing on an actual crane and being evaluated by other qualified individuals. OSHA makes crane operator certification mandatory. In addition, OSHA requires that employers evaluate the qualifications of crane operators. What’s more, operators need to take refresher courses and advanced skills training to stay at the top of their game. Training takes time and can be expensive.

Modern cranes are operated by individuals who not only carry loads, but also life and death responsibilities every time they sit in the cab and place their hands on the controls. Mistakes don’t just damage goods and set back schedules; they can endanger the lives of people around them. As in every industry, attrition is a reality. Crane operators retire and new recruits are trained to be proficient. However, even experienced crane operators must train for new requirements, enhanced and advancing technological equipment capabilities. Training on the actual equipment requires that the crane be taken off line, wasting expensive fuel. The trainee is also not producing, which adds up to high cost and lost productivity. Plus there has to be a way for operators to have experiential reference points before they perform a lift cold-turkey in real time!


So what is the solution to the training requirements for crane operators? Virtual Reality Simulators (VRS)! Over the counter consumer virtual reality headsets were first introduced by video game companies back in the mid nineties. They took the world by storm and everyone wanted to play because the game graphics were more realistic. Now, virtual reality is available not only in headsets but also entire room environments where the person experiences very realistic sensations of sight, sound and motion. For the average person the term, flight simulator is most commonly familiar where airline and military pilots train for the real thing. According to dictionary.com, “Virtual reality is a realistic and immersive simulation of a three-dimensional environment, created using interactive software and hardware, and experienced or controlled by movement of the body.”


We’ve come a long way from virtual reality video games to serious training scenarios in many categories of business, particularly crane operations. Simulators in various forms are showing up more and more in a variety of companies as well as training centers and in some colleges and trade schools. VRS has become a big part of training for operators of crane equipment. Using VRS has resulted in decreased accidents and better prepared operators. The cost of VRS training is essentially determined by the depth of the realistic experience desired. VRS training functions just like being tarined on a real crane.

With VRS the feel and sense of weight, movement, collision sensations that occur when hitting another object are all very real to the senses. The old popular phrase, “Keeping it real,” applies in VRS. The operator in training connects the virtual with the real. One of the ways to enhance that is not only seeing the view from the crane cab, but allowing the operator to see the controls, which brings a deeper sense of personal and tactile engagement. The higher quality VRS systems are designed to provide controls that look like real crane controls and function in the same way. It also offers the ability to present the operator with a variety of crane makes and models for diverse training and preparation.

In an aerial crane VRS training situation, the operator can actually see the shadow of the load being moved which amplifies realism in depth perception. This combined with sound and physical sensations make for a realistic experience. One of the keys to experience realism is the graphic quality of the software’s resolution in the imagery presented. The software isn’t the only thing that makes “virtual” convince the mind of “reality.” Hardware is just as vital. LED displays need what’s called, Field of View (FOV). The larger the FOV, the better the realism can convince the mind. VRS training is essentially all about the level of realism for the operator. New technology offers high-fidelity simulations based on various engineering specifications. Obviously, the higher the quality experience of realism, the easier it is for operators to train efficiently and cost effectively.VRS allows hitting the reset button at any time so if any virtual damage is done, that skill can be developed. The companies that employ cranes and operators greatly benefit because they save time and money in preparing operators for jobskills acquired on the simulator which transfer directly to the real-world work site.

VRS allows trainers to change the weather in a moment’s notice, thereby taking the trainee by surprise. This includes simulations of wind, rain, fog, snow, and time-of-day. Also, the effects of VRS can be so realistic that trainees can experience nausea, especially with goggle-based VRS systems. Goggles are more appropriate for crane operators who are stationary. With VRS based on high-resolution flat screens, motion sickness is not an issue.

According to Debbie Dickinson, CEO of Crane Industry Services, a firm that offers training and consulting, “One hour in VRS training equals 3 to 4 hours of learning while sitting in an actual crane. Plus, safety is significantly enhanced and risk factors are greatly reduced. Operators learn skills through VRS that make them proficient by experiencing problems, dangers and unexpected events before they happen in real time.” She mentioned several examples from a VRS training session in her facility. In one case a female operator in training found herself in a sudden, severe unannounced lightning and rain storm scenario. The simulation gets to the brain quickly as a real experience. In this case she made a snap decision on her own; shut down the crane until the weather passes (the appropriate decision). This kind of training experience prepares operators for the real thing and it helps that they have already experienced the situation so they are not blindsided by it in real time. Debbie also mentioned that more and more women are entering the field of crane operators. Currently she estimated that 95% of crane operators are male, but this is beginning to change.

Another training scenario she cited was learning how to handle what the industry calls “Kill the Drift.” There are times when a crane operator needs to change direction with a suspended load. This can cause the load to start swinging like a pendulum. In VRS they learn how to stop the pendulum effect and center the load. At Crane Industry Services most training sessions run 30 to 40 hours. The training is so effective that they have trained new operators who have never been in a real crane before and after completing the VRS training, they performed expertly in a crane for their first time. Debbie made the point by adding, “Some of these operators can change a diaper with a hook.”

Training in various work environments

VRS crane training is excellently suited to operators who will run cranes in complex and/or difficult spaces, and in places where a lot of other equipment is operating and workers are all about. These working spaces present many dangers to all concerned, so it’s not only the training that’s required, crane operators need a natural skill of “sense knowledge” much like an athlete’s muscle memory can make the difference between success and failure. Generally speaking, training through VRS is better, faster and more effective than most traditional methods especially in this fast paced world.

The trend to realism

In the military and aviation sectors, simulators have been in use for training for decades. Crane VRS training has been in use since the mid-1990s. Those early simulators were helpful, to a degree, but did not offer very realistic graphics. At that time the capability to simulate crane load dynamics was not very good. Also, training content only provided familiarization with basic controls and operating procedures.

David Clark, Product Marketing Manager at CM Labs, evaluated it this way: “Today, the professional-grade simulation technology that is common in the aviation and defense sectors has ‘come down to earth.’ This is due to innovations in simulation technology that make high training value more affordable, as well as a more pervasive construction safety culture. Now, there are construction crane and heavy equipment simulators that provide the most realistic simulation of machines, whether they are excavating dirt or lifting a load. As far as future developments go, CM Labs is working in lock step with industry to incorporate innovations that have come to the sector (in terms of on-site execution as well as digital collaboration), into our training solutions.”

At this point in VRS training there’s no longer any doubt that its effectiveness in training vastly reduces the risk of injuries and fatalities, as well as damage to equipment or property. David also clarified that any time a novice operator gets into the seat of a real crane, there is a risk that the unexpected may occur, whether it’s a machine fault or a climate event. Simulators allow trainees to learn how to respond to the unexpected in a controlled environment. One of the other benefits that CM Labs has experienced comes from clients that mention how some new operators struggle to pass the certification exam. And then, after spending just one day on their simulator, they are able to pass the exam the next time they take it. Simulators are also an ideal way for operators who may lack confidence (whether they are coming back from an injury or a long layoff) to “shake off the rust” before getting back into the seat.

A menu of virtual reality training

Generally speaking there are table top style VRS training programs and goggle-based immersion systems. They are both useful, and fit into different stages in the training cycle. Table-top mounted systems can be invaluable for becoming familiar with crane controls, and gaining an understanding of the physics of the crane, and how loads react under variable conditions. CM Labs simulators include actual on-board crane computers, load moment indicators, varied boom configuration, realistic simulation of crane behavior and cable physical property simulation for winch lines, load, and multiple rigging operations.

“Total immersion VRS delivers the seat-of-your-pants feel that translates into a vastly reduced learning curve when you get into an actual crane,” David emphasized. Of course the bottom line for VRS is the time and cost savings of the actual training for the company, and the productivity and efficiency of a well prepared operator. David cited a real-world example. One of their clients, Conewago Enterprises, a leading design-build general contractor has reduced on site crane training with CM Labs’ Vortex simulator. They have reduced on site crane training time from 6 months to 7 weeks, and training costs from $40,000 to $15,000. This kind of result makes the point that simulators can make a real, direct impact on business productivity and bottom line.

Bigger, Better, Faster

The ancient Greeks and Romans led the way in developing crane-like equipment to move and lift enormous weights. Ancient or not, we have to admit that old Pharaoh Cheops remains unrivaled in his pyramid building achievement. Humans have an insatiable appetite to build big, go higher, and stretch further. That means more cranes with greater technology and higher capacity will be engineered. It also means that crane operators will depend more and more on technical skills and top notch critical training. Perhaps there is a key ingredient to all this. Consider how we wonder at technology advances while completely overlooking the wonder of the human minds that created that technology. No matter what the advances are, it takes human involvement to make technology operate. Training, preparedness and no shortage of good old “boldness” is what changes the world for the better. Virtual Reality Simulation training will continue to play a key role in preparing these professionals for the ongoing quest to go up, up, up.


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