New dimension to miner training

SOFTWARE is having a major impact on mine worker training in the 21st century. By 5DT business development manager Quay Fahnestock.

Donna Schmidt

Published in the March 2008 Coal USA Magazine

As today’s youth enter the workforce, they bring skills that previous generations of miners did not have, namely a strong aptitude towards computers. Students possessing these computer skills allow 21st century mining companies to use modern training tools such as software and simulators to supplement traditional classroom and hands on training methods.

The mining industry is facing a problem with its workforce – many are aging and nearing retirement. In fact, according to a recent statistic review in , the average age of a coal miner in West Virginia is 55 years old.

There is a large generation gap between these seasoned, experienced miners and the fresh faces that are being hired out of today’s high schools and colleges. According to Elaine Cullen of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Spokane Research Laboratory, there are growing concerns about the gap between existing safety training materials and what should be used particularly as the mining population ages and as new workers are entering the field.

“The big concern was over who would train new miners if the experienced miners all left over a relatively short amount of time,” she said. “More importantly how could the wisdom of these expert miners be captured before they left so that new miners could benefit long after the experts were gone.”

This is indeed a key question to an immediate problem. While an older generation of experienced miners are well versed in their trade, the way they learned those trades are inherently different from the new generation of trainees. This can be seen in new recruits who are trained with interactive simulators and ready to hit the coal fields much faster than previous generations of students.

The mining industry has started to realize these potential problems, and has been going through dramatic changes to address them. The traditional training methods of years past encompass more of a hands-on approach by having students learn in a classroom environment, then don a red hat and operate a machine right away.

Virtual reality (VR) companies specializing in mining training solutions simulations, such as 5DT (Fifth Dimension Technologies), have been augmenting the traditional hands-on approach with software-based learning.

Typically, new hires need to go through simulation training before they are even allowed to touch a real machine. Coal giant Peabody Energy’s Midwest training director Gary Nelson is utilizing training software and simulators not only for new employees, but also for refresher training for experienced miners.

“We are just touching the tip of the iceberg of using simulators for training miners … there is so much more that we can do with these simulators that we are just scratching the surface of their value,” he said.

Due to the large number of miners facing retirement over the next decade, the National Mining Association expects as many as 50,000 new coal miners will be needed to meet demand to replace retiring miners. Today's seasoned miners are now presented with a challenge – how to quickly and thoroughly transfer years of mining experience to new recruits.

Software-based training solutions can offer new recruits a quick and easy way to familiarize themselves with mining machines and their role in the mining process.

They can also be a great way to show new hires the mining process. With the use of a virtual mine, new hires can look at a mine from many different views including top-down for surface mines and see-through views for underground mines to understand the logistics of machine use.

Longwalls, shuttle cars, continuous miners and roof bolters all involve key actions that are hard to visualize in the real world. With software, it is easy for a new hire to see how their mine operates and what role they would play in their mine’s production.

Computer-based trainers, or CBTs, are becoming an essential first step in training new recruits. Simple yet important tasks such as learning machine components or pre- and post-shift inspections can be easily taught with a CBT.

Pulling a machine out of production for training can be very costly for a mine considering fuel and production expense as well as potential damage through student error.

Learning virtually through a CBT, however, is faster, safer and much less expensive.

CBTs are designed to work directly through a web browser in a self-paced, self-directed environment that transfers knowledge about the machine and its role in the mining process to the student.

5DT’s CBT applications offer students an introduction to, and subsequent familiarization with, a variety of surface and underground machines. A roof bolter CBT, for example, can give students general knowledge of any common bolter and its purpose.

The second level of CBT learning is at the OEM level where detailed information about a specific make and model of a roof bolter, such as a Fletcher Roof Ranger II, are taught. After the key machine operational procedures, pre- and post-shift inspection, safety and common machine failures are taught, mine-specific standard operating procedures (SOPs) are then presented.

Learning the basic controls of a longwall shearer or continuous miner in a remote manner are an excellent example of an ideal software-based training solution. Instead of pulling a CM from service for a new recruit to learn on, a software-generated version of a miner is a far better way of training, both practically and economically.

Once a student completes a software-based training course on a machine they typically require shorter operator training periods.

The safety aspects of using simulators are a vital advantage of software-based solutions. Realistically speaking, there are some scenarios that a mine would never want to practice in a real vehicle. For example, learning how to handle an engine fire or a haul truck tire blowout are not things to practice in real life.

Training on simulators, however, can give critical emergency procedure knowledge to miners that they would never get to experience during training in the field. Using software as a training medium, miners can practice accidents and machine failures in a safe and secure environment.

Another benefit is greater training flexibility for both companies and schools, as software-based training solutions can be used 24/7 and delivered over the internet to remote locations.

Software can also address maintenance-related problems. Maintenance trainers can be used to acclimatize personnel to system repair and troubleshooting. Maintenance trainers implement interactive schematics to teach electrical and hydraulic systems, allowing students to perform virtual repairs by selecting necessary tools and parts to perform the job.

Software-based training solutions are a vital, and permanent, training tool for the industry. Simulating a mine, process, or a machine in software has many benefits over traditional training.

At 5DT, we have been developing training solutions and simulators for 15 years, and believe our industry training solutions can make operators safer, more productive and less destructive.