Alex Bakker has just completed a two-week training course in excavator operation. But unlike those who learnt to operate an excavator in years gone by, Alex has been taught from the comfort of a $160,000 simulator.

The 19-year-old from Auckland is one of a growing number of Kiwis learning the basics of machine operation from high-tech simulators before moving onto a real machine of steel and hydraulics.

Operating from the virtual cab of a CAT excavator at Hick Bros Civil Construction training centre, Alex quickly picked up the skills required to manoeuvre the machine safely, operate the boom and bucket smoothly, and understand any warning lights that pop up on the vehicle’s display.

The simulators at Hick Bros North Shore training centre are mounted on motion platforms that add realism and movement to the learning experience. Each can be paired with three large monitors or even a virtual reality headset to provide a 360-degree view of a simulated worksite.

The beauty of it all is that Alex and others like him can learn what causes potentially deadly mistakes like machine rolling or contact with underground services in a simulated environment, without putting anyone in danger or damaging equipment. And because it’s located indoors, he was able to train regularly, in all weather.

“I’ve dug too deep, I’ve made many mistakes but it’s all part of the learning process in upskilling myself to become a better operator,” Alex said, during a recent interview on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp.

Hick Bros group training manager Nathan Seay says being able to train on simulators is appealing for many school leavers.

“It’s like a very expensive PlayStation or Xbox isn’t it? For most people playing racing games on a PlayStation won’t get you a job, but this is a way to launch a career and gain new skills by playing a game.”

Mr Seay first became aware of simulators while working in the mining industry in Africa, where they are commonly used to quickly teach people the skills they need to operate hugely expensive machinery before they are asked to do it for real.

“We always say there’s a skills shortage in New Zealand but the question is what are we doing about it? Health and safety rules mean you can’t sit on the side of your father’s bulldozer or motor scraper anymore when you’re growing up, so fewer people have the skills they need for civil construction when they leave school. I want people to have the same opportunities as I did.”

Hick Bros invested $1 million to set up the simulated environment in February this year and has already used it to train more than 20 new and existing hires. The company’s training centre now has three motion platforms and five interchangeable simulator decks that can be used to train staff on how to operate an excavator, grader, loader, dozer or articulated dump truck.

Staff typically train for two or three weeks on the simulator before operating a machine on site under supervision. Built in assessment tools enable the simulators to check on a trainee operator’s every move, down to whether they put on a seatbelt or positions the boom correctly when driving on an incline.

“The simulators don’t replace the iron and steel but we can get people 75 per cent there without putting them or our equipment at risk,” Nathan says.

“As a business it’s a long-term investment. Over a two-year period you will start to see savings and other benefits – less blown transmissions, less lost productivity and less injured staff.”

Another of New Zealand’s best-known training centres is run by Wilson Earthmoving Group. The Whangarei-based company became first in New Zealand or Australia to use Caterpillar simulators for virtual training when it brought in three of the simulators in 2018.

Wilson Earthmoving has the same model as Hick Bros but has combined them with a purpose-built trailer so they can be taken on the road to different sites across Northland. This allows industry to use the simulators across the region and gives people consider a career in civil construction a chance to try them at ‘have a go’ days and career expos.

“Northland is a big region so it’s critical for our simulators to be mobile,” says training centre manager John Henare.

“Being able to take them to our people for training and upskilling is great and creates a sense of opportunity.”

He says a big benefit of the simulators is their ability to give people confidence and instil the “muscle memory” operators need in order to quickly locate and operate controls when things are happening on site around them.

As well as offering mobile simulators, Wilson Earthmoving also has a purpose-built training centre in Whangarei, where it runs a four to six-week training programme designed for people considering a career change into this industry. The simulator training is paired with an opportunity for trainees to operate ‘real steel’ Caterpillar machinery such as excavators and graders in a dedicated training arena. At the completion of the training, graduates are work ready.

“If you come into the business and have zero experience on a machine it can be very daunting when you’re asked to operate a machine on site for the first time. The simulators, along with our training programme, create a safe and knowledgeable learning environment.”

As technology improves, John expects to see simulators become even more valuable. A growing number of heavy machines around the world are being operated entirely remotely by operators sitting in different locations. Having experience operating a machine via a simulator will be a big advantage as remotely operated machinery becomes more common in New Zealand, he says.

While the full simulator experience provides the most realism, there are also lower cost options when it comes to virtual training. Civil Contractors New Zealand communications advisor Fraser May says one such option is virtual worksite experiences using virtual reality headsets.

CCNZ was one of a group of industry players that partnered with the Ministry of Social Development to produce Skills for Industry – a virtual reality experience that gives users a taste of what it is like to work as an excavator operator, earthmoving truck driver or traffic controller.

“We worked closely with MSD to develop scenarios. From there, we launched a pilot at conferences, trade expos and schools around New Zealand to show people what the jobs are like. The response has been positive. People are telling us it’s given them a good idea of what the career is all about.”

Fraser says the Skills for Industry VR experience has been set up for aptitude testing and can produce a report about a user’s performance. This would make it an ideal tool for careers advisors seeking to counsel students on career options as well as for employers in the civil construction industry that want to test job applicants before offering them a contract.

This virtual reality earthmoving and traffic control pilot has now reached hundreds of people at schools, expos and even the CCNZ CablePrice Auckland Regional Excavator Operator Competition.

He says he expects more virtual and augmented reality tools to be used in New Zealand over coming years, including for health and safety training and development of soft skills such as communication.

“Virtual reality can play an important role in engaging young people and for training the wide range of soft skills that are so vital on worksites. With so many new technologies coming to the marketplace, it really is an exciting time to be entering a career in civil.”

The latest test session took place at the Palmerston North MSD office, and was attended by career seekers from the Manawatu region and representatives of the Te Ahu a Turanga Manawatu Tararua Highway project as part of a 10-day introduction to civil construction pilot course. The VR scenarios will be available for industry use in the near future.