OHS Canada Magazine

Get Real in the Virtual World

March 1, 2009
By Jason Contant
Health & Safety

TWO YEARS BEFORE assembly line workers at Ford Motor Company plants actually start production on a new vehicle, the unit is already being built.

TWO YEARS BEFORE assembly line workers at Ford Motor Company plants actually start production on a new vehicle, the unit is already being built.

It’s not magic; it’s virtual. Outfitted with a digitized harness, gloves and head gear, company engineers and specialists are able to go through the motions — “literally” — and perform “virtual” assembly operations just as workers would on the “real” line.

Employees suit up with reflective markers on their ankles, knees and hips, says Allison Stephens, technical specialist in assembly ergonomics for the company. That “reflective marker movement” is then captured and mapped onto a human model, Stephens explains.

Use of advanced motion capture technology — similar to what the film industry uses to create animation — produces “real” instead of “animated” actions. “We know the movements are real movements. They are movements somebody has actually gotten into as they were trying to install the tires or reach for a connection,” Stephens reports. “We can get the benefit of being able to do a full simulation very quickly.”

The virtual tool set allows company officials to discover, for example, “whether or not an operator would have enough hand clearance between two components” to tighten a bolt or reach for a component under a car hood, Stephens says. Once clearance becomes clear, officials can use the information to determine if that will be the case for “the majority of the people building the vehicle,” she adds.


John Schmidt, digital pre-assembly and virtual build supervisor at Ford, estimates an assembly plant has 10 to 15 lines, with 20 stations per line. “We go to the detail of every fastener and every part,” Schmidt says. If a clearance or related issue is identified, he notes that either the process sequence can be modified or the part itself can be altered.

Going virtual has ergonomics benefits as well, by decreasing the chance that a musculoskeletal injury will occur on the plant floor. Before the virtual technology was adopted, in 2005, Stephens says that about 300 ergonomic issues had been identified as part of physically building a vehicle. Now, approximately 30 issues per build are noted.

“We are catching [issues] before we cut metal and before we design the car,” Stephens says. Before 2005, making procedural changes was more difficult “because you’ve already signed off that this is the way the design is,” she adds.

Ford is even exploring whether or not the company can use the virtual approach for disassembly and maintenance of vehicles, Stephens reports.

Keeping it real

Despite the benefits and progress to date, there is a major downside to any large-scale, virtual simulation: cost. “It seems inaccessible from a financial perspective for people right now, but every day the pricing of that kind of thing comes into a more affordable category,” says P. J. Murray, manager of research and development for the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA) in Mississauga, Ontario.

The same technology that’s found a home at Ford can be applied to “many other occupational health and safety issues,” Murray suggests.

Whether an assembly worker who helps produce vehicles, an operator who drives truck, a pilot who flies planes, a soldier who performs military operations or a worker who fights fires, virtual training or simulation promises to prove a handy companion, indeed.

However, this type of training — oftentimes replicating a work environment by way of a “video game” format — should not be confused with online, or web-based, training. “It’s specific to a task and that’s where a lot of virtual training or simulations are more effective” than online training, suggests Carmela Centrella, marketing and information technology manager for Hazard Alert Training Inc., a training provider in Edmonton.

Some popular courses in the online realm cover such topics as transportation of dangerous goods (TDG) and WHMIS, or the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System. “In TDG, you drive the truck off the road and then you have a spill. It’s kind of hard to put somebody in that scenario,” Centrella says. “It almost seems too video game-ish.”

Learning from “experience”

But putting “virtual” people in harm’s way is sometimes the point. Consider SIMergency, a simulation software project directed by Dr. Andrew Manning, a professor in the Department of Education at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. The virtual software trains incident commanders — those responsible for all aspects of an emergency response — on procedures and strategies for tackling a fire.

“What we did was model the progression of a fire through a three-storey rooming house and the training part of it is how do you actually strategize putting that fire out [when] there are people in the building you have to get out?” Dr. Manning says.

The software, originally designed with oil rig workers in mind, comes with parameters such as wind direction, building size, and how quickly the fire burns. Developed as a prototype, “it is scalable,” Dr. Manning says.

In an earlier prepared statement, he suggested considering the following scenario: “Imagine becoming an expert at a video game that helps you make decisions that can help save people in a real emergency. You can make a mistake on a simulation and lose seven lives, but they are virtual, not real.”

To be effective, a virtual training course needs “an element which makes it different each time,” Dr. Manning offers. “For a good simulation, there has to be a recursive element to it to allow the practice over and over again. It can’t be the same; it has to be slightly different.”

SIMergency — which is being used by the Brampton Fire and Emergency Service in southern Ontario — was designed to allow the virtual online interaction between a firefighter in Brampton and a paramedic in Halifax. Debriefing by the incident commander, who runs the program, follows.

Dr. Manning emphasizes simulation “can’t train skills,” but can certainly be effective in training strategies. “The only skill you’re using is keyboarding and mousing, but if they are aimed at strategies… you can practice using the resources which are available,” he points out.

The next stage in the Brampton/Halifax project involves a scenario in which both fire and chemical hazards exist, Dr. Manning reports.

Officials at Mount Saint Vincent University are also seeking funding on a project to model an emergency response to a pandemic outbreak. “How can you plan when maybe 50 or 25 firefighters aren’t going to be able to respond?” Dr. Manning asks.

Coming together

Strictly virtual programs are not limited to assembly lines in a car manufacturing plant or a rooming house hit by a hungry fire, however.

Last April, Kimberly Clark Professional, based in Roswell, Georgia, launched an interactive “virtual model” that allows customers to “try on” personal protective equipment (PPE) products before deciding whether or not to buy. Dubbed “Symbiosis Man,” the user is able to dress the model in head-to-toe protection that includes eye protection, respirators, gloves and coveralls from a specific brand of general, specialty and chemical protection products, notes information from the company.

Both front and back views are available and virtual images can be emailed or printed for future reference. “We’ve taken our garments and other PPE out of their boxes and placed them on a facsimile of a human being,” says Kimberly Clark’s senior category manager, Donna McPherson. “It truly makes the PPE come alive,” McPherson notes.

Simulation-style learning also seems to be “popping up here and there” in online human resources programs, reports Jeff Archibald, an instructional design coordinator for Hazard Alert Training. “So you’re presented with this situation. What actions do you take?” Archibald asks.

The IAPA’s Murray agrees that there is some overlap between virtual and online training. “It’s starting to me
rge. What was traditional online training is starting to get elements of virtual training,” she suggests.

On the line

While virtual training has become a workplace consideration relatively recently, online training has been available since the 1990s and has become more and more accepted over the past decade, reports Don Hoddinott, director of business development for YOW Canada Inc. in Ottawa.

An effective online training course, Hoddinott suggests, incorporates a variety of teaching techniques, as well as audio, illustrations, photos and video, to capture the attention of trainees. “Some training providers will post a ‘slide show’ on the Internet without audio or even illustrations and call it an ‘online course,'” he says. The training also needs to be on point (see “Need to Know” on page 63).

Paul Williams, president of Internet Based Learning Ltd. in London, Ontario, notes the ability of a user to navigate a course via multiple pathways is the hallmark of effective online training. “Users may not enjoy being forced to sit through an elaborate multimedia presentation when they can read about the content in print format,” Williams suggests.

Hazard Alert Training’s Centrella concurs, saying that whether looking for online or virtual training, “just because it looks like it’s the fanciest or it has the most bells and whistles doesn’t mean you’re going to get the best training out of it. Sometimes these bells and whistles seem fun and they seem entertaining, but will it get the training done?”

Archibald says online training can use a variety of techniques to cater to different adult learning strategies. “That’s one of the beautiful aspects of online learning,” he suggests. “There is something for the visual learner, something for the auditory learner, and something for the kinesthetic learner,” Archibald adds.

Building bridges

Blended learning — the combination of two or more styles of learning, such as classroom and online instruction — may be one approach to bridge any potential gap in learning.

“A lot of people, quite frankly, don’t see e-learning as training because you don’t get a chance to practice,” says Murray. “That can be bridged if an organization is very thoughtful about their application of e-learning”in that it can be blended with practical elements, she adds.

Says Centrella, “No online training in and of itself is going to do everything for you.” Employers should ensure good record-keeping and use reference aids to reinforce learning, she suggests.

Interestingly, online training can often more easily identify the learning difficulties or reading abilities of a worker than other forms of training, Centrella reports. She says she is amazed by the number of times she comes across a situation in which, for example, a worker has been at a company for many years, but supervisors or co-workers do not know the worker is unable to read or to read well.

“They might be able to read a shipping document because they’ve seen it so many times, so they know what to look for,” Centrella says. But when that’s not the case, when a person is exposed to a new type of training, there are signs. For instance, a worker may be spending more time on a particular screen or section of the training, Centrella notes.

Both virtual and online training options look to be here to stay. And these options may be joined by other even newer forms of training in the near future.

With iPhones and pod-casting now available, “mobile learning” may become the next thing of the future, suggests Hazard Alert Training’s Archibald. “Ten years from now, if we have this conversation, it will be about mobile learning,” he believes.

Ford’s Stephens predicts that virtual tools will eventually complement or even replace the “paper and pencil” as the method of instruction for workers. “One day, I keep saying, the operator on the line is going to be able to hit a button and see our simulation that we did and say, ‘This is how they want me to install this part.'”



“It’s specific to a task and that’s where a lot of virtual training or simulations are more effective.”


Clear and Present Benefits

There are many different ways that training can be delivered, each with its own advantages. Supporters of online training say some of its benefits include the following:

• simultaneous training for numerous staff in multiple locations;

• estimated savings of 50 to 70 per cent by eliminating travel expenses;

• elimination of cumbersome paperwork;

• ability to re-read course materials to help cement comprehension;

• 24/7 delivery of information;

• reduced downtime from not needing to remove multiple employees from their work tasks at the same time;

• electronic documentation and transferable record-keeping abilities; and,

• flexibility to learn at one’s own pace and to bookmark progress.


Need to Know

Any training course needs to meet the legislative and regulatory requirements of the relevant jurisdiction, whether that be provincial or federal, advises Don Hoddinott, director of business development for YOW Canada Inc. in Ottawa.

“Finding this out can be a hard task, but choosing a reputable online training provider will go a long way in ensuring you are dealing with industry professionals,” Hoddinott says. He recommends asking a few questions to ensure that the training is appropriate:

•I sthecoursedevelopedforCanadians?

•D oesthecoursemeetprovincialandfederalrequirements?

•I sthecourseupdatedtoreflectthemostcurrentrequirements?

• Are there any potential technical issues raised by having the course run on company computers?

• Can the trainer provide a list of testimonials from previous clients?

•O ncetraineescompletethecourse, whatadditional, site-specifictraining may be required?


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