The increased pace of operations, and need to cross-train technical personnel, all within ever-shrinking training budgets, creates a daunting challenge for the defence industry both in Canada and abroad. How can maintenance training be more cost effective and time efficient, yet still ensure personnel reach required levels of skills proficiency?

Fortunately this challenge can be overcome through the application of interactive 3-D technology to simulate training equipment where students would otherwise have limited or no access to expensive live equipment.
With this approach, organizations have found they can reap these rewards:

§ Accelerating maintenance training on complex equipment: Students can achieve proficiency on maintenance tasks and procedures in less time
§ Enabling first-time-right repairs: With on-demand access to virtual equipment for refresher training, personnel can get jobs done right the first time around

In March 2004, the Canadian Air Force commissioned an independent scientific study on the use of interactive 3-D technology in facilitating air technician maintenance operations and procedures. Conducted by Greenley & Associates — an independent consultancy specialized in the science of learning and the use of technology — the study used NGRAIN Corp.’s interactive 3-D solution to examine its effectiveness in improving operational performance by reducing work and duration of typical life cycle management tasks, like parts maintenance and repair.

The study made use of a model of a CH146 Griffon helicopter tail rotor assembly. The software was used to visualize parts, animate disassembly procedures, and attach detailed information to parts — linking them to tech orders, inventory data, training modules and service bulletins.

Greenley & Associates found that by using the 3-D maintenance training solution the total number of work hours required to investigate and resolve a maintenance incident was reduced by 30 per cent. When NGRAIN’s product was integrated in the life cycle management system, task work decreased from 119 hours to 82 hours
(see Figure 1).

The study also found that the quality of task performance was improved significantly over five criteria: the amount of work required to do the task (see Figure 2); the level of understanding of the intent of the task; the likelihood of information being lost or misplaced; the likelihood of error in the task; and the long-term durability of the information. Additionally, it found 3-D interactive technology to be an effective way to share the knowledge of retiring subject matter experts.

The benefits of Hard Skills Simulations
A number of training industry experts have highlighted that the application of simulations in training is no longer just for use by pilots. “A wide range of inexpensive simulators is being used to train everyone from artillery troops to tank mechanics,” wrote Paul Harris (“Sims, Sims, Sims,” Learning Circuits, October 6, 2003). Similarly, the Brandon-Hall report, E-Learning Simulation Products and Services 2004, stated “simulation has emerged as a distinct product line representing the next generation of training.”

Defence industry schoolhouses are facing tight or reduced budgets, requiring them to cut training costs without sacrificing quality of training, while remaining responsive to operational training needs. Creative approaches to achieving these goals include finding ways to reduce wear and tear on the equipment used for training, reducing travel and living costs by shortening spent time in the classroom, and improving classroom safety by decreasing the risk of injury. Each of these objectives fit with the use of technology to create Hard Skills Simulations.

Such simulations are virtual recreations of equipment that allow students to learn maintenance procedures, machine operation, service tasks, and repair diagnostics. While Hard Skills Simulations can be created using 2-D technologies, the trend is increasingly moving towards the use of 3-D virtual equipment that allows students to view all components in three dimensions, while also providing views of internal structure and operations, and hands-on interaction.

As most trainers will agree, context and practice are essential to retaining and applying knowledge. Simulations provide a means to achieve both of these, while reducing overall demands on classroom infrastructure. Among their advantages:

§ students learn from their mistakes safely;
§ training takes place without the expense of taking equipment offline;
§ efficient training reduces training time;
§ more training can be delivered outside of the classroom;
§ training is more accessible and standardized.

Hard Skills Simulations provide students with access to training materials anytime, anywhere. They can perform unlimited “drill and practice” exercises, watch procedural animations, and repeat virtual maintenance and repair tasks until they get them right.

This is markedly different from traditional hard skills training, in which — due to cost and limited equipment — students have restricted hands-on time with both the hard trainers and the actual live equipment. Such trainers are also expensive to construct and maintain, often running into the millions of dollars, while Hard Skills Simulations have a one-time development cost that is typically a fraction of the price.

For example, one U.S. Army facility recently saved close to $1 million US in capital costs by implementing a Hard Skills Simulation instead of a hard trainer in just one module of a technician’s course. Now this site is not only able to provide hands-on training to students that better immerses them in the subject matter, but also reduced its annual maintenance costs from $80,000 US for the hard trainer to less than $10,000 US for the simulation software.

Applying interactive 3-D virtual equipment to training
Until recently, the use of 3-D in training was limited to high-end applications, such as flight simulators. This was due to the limitations of traditional 3-D graphics technologies, which required advanced programmers to develop, and high-end computers with specialized graphics acceleration hardware to run.

Over the past several years, new technologies have been introduced that remove these barriers to 3-D graphics, allowing interactive 3-D content to be used for lower-end applications. In fact, there are tools available which allow junior developers and even average-skilled Microsoft® Office users to develop sophisticated interactive 3-D content, all of which can be deployed cost-effectively on common desktop and laptop computers.

Just as Hard Skills Simulation provides advantages over using hard trainers, using interactive 3-D graphics provides a number of important benefits over static 2-D graphics, photos, and video. 3-D graphics provide students with an immersive learning environment that accelerates their comprehension of complex equipment and maintenance tasks, while increasing knowledge retention.

Students can fully explore 3-D virtual equipment, examining every part from all angles, cutting cross-sections to see internals, better understanding the relationships between each part. Students can watch 3-D animations that illustrate maintenance and repair procedures over and over again, until they achieve the required knowledge and skill level.

Interactive 3-D technology offers an innovative new way for organizations to get troops up to speed on equipment and skills more quickly and efficiently. The result is not only reduced training and operational costs, but also a higher, more responsive level of preparedness, which ultimately saves lives.

Josie Simpson is the director of Product Management at NGRAIN Corp. With a background in both e-Learning and technology, Simpson is passionate about the union of both, has written on the subject, participated as a judge in a leading e-Learning awards program, and is a frequent speaker and panelist at industry events.