As military vehicles have hardened to address the threat of improvised explosive devices, routine maintenance has become anything but routine. Formerly accessible components are now often buried behind armour protection, complicating the most basic tasks.

“Now changing the oil isn’t pop the hood, it’s take this slab off, take that slab off, undo this – all weighing thousands of pounds, so now you need cranes and winches to actually take it apart,” says Gabe Batstone, the chief executive officer of Vancouver-based NGRAIN. “No one was really prepared for this aspect. Depot maintenance, where you’ve got lots of equipment, was okay, but [for] something basic, how do you do it?”

This was especially true for Canada’s expedient route opening capability (EROC), large vehicles such as the RSD Husky and the Force Protection-built Buffalo and Cougar that were acquired and deployed to Afghanistan with little time for operators and maintenance technicians to train on them.

In trips to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, Batstone saw firsthand the challenge for technicians confronted by fortress-like vehicles with small, intricate devices. “One, how can you get something quickly and efficiently in the classroom to show them what they need to do? And second, can you send something [into the field], be it on an iPad or other device, so that when they are doing [maintenance or repairs] you can given them a reminder?”

One solution has been three-dimensional simulation software. In May, NGRAIN announced that a range of its Virtual Task Trainer solutions had been selected by National Defence to provide interactive simulations for both the Buffalo, which uses an extended crane and claw to uncover IEDs and other threats, and the Husky, which includes large ground penetration radar panels that are complicated to remove and install.

While a simulation of a complex device won’t mitigate lifting off armour plates, it has provided visual real-time, step-by-step instructions on how to perform basic procedures, both in the classroom and in the field.

More important, software such as NGRAIN’s has helped technicians and combat engineers get the job done right the first time. According to Batstone, experience has proven that when someone is sent out to repair or install a component, “one in four times they don’t actually do it right.” With the visual aid, most are achieving a 95 percent or higher success rate. “And there are significant costs to that,” he noted. “When they don’t get it right the first time, you have to send somebody back out, you may have used parts, and you’ve certainly used time, and obviously whatever you were working on is still not functional.”

He points to a recent project with the Canadian army in which a 3D training module was able to improve the fail rate in a particular course from 25 percent to almost zero, while raising the average course score of 80 percent to 96, all while helping students to perform the task 30 percent faster.

“All of it goes to the reality of the situation,” he said. “You’re in the era of austerity – there is not a lot of money out there. You’re also in the era of persistent conflict. I think technology and innovation are one of the ways you can bridge that gap.”

Visual learning may be the preferred method of a new generation, but economics is the key driver behind the growing use of simulated training, Batstone said. “Even if you don’t want to do it, you have to think outside the box. If you brief someone at the Pentagon and say, I’ve got this great new technology, I can save you 30 percent, and he’s got the same budget he had last year, he [won’t be interested]. But if the next day his boss walks in and says he’s got to cut his budget by 25 percent, he’s looking for your card.

“In the simulation industry I would argue that budget crunch and the financial crisis has opened a lot of doors because people have to change the way they think. We are creatures of habit. And smaller budgets have broken a bunch of habits in our customer base.”

Many, he said, now recognize that simulated training is faster, often cheaper, and at times more effective.