While not a replacement to traditional training, simulators are effective in transferring knowledge and skill. A 2010 study of Lincoln's VRTEX virtual welder performed at Iowa State University showed that students training virtually 50% of the time were welding more effectively than the traditionally trained control group. The virtual simulators also cut down on material expenses, since no actual coupons needed to be discarded at the end of each session.
Another benefit of virtual training is that students aren't rushing out of the classroom at the end of the day.
"It's like putting a birdfeeder out in the wintertime," said Carl Peters, director of training for Cleveland-based Lincoln Electric. "It's their world; it's the gaming world."
At the CII meeting on July 27, attendees had an opportunity to test drive a variety of simulators for welders, crane operators, loader operators and painters, whose prices have been dropping. Low-tech desktop units typically cost under $5,000, while console-type units cost up to $50,000.
"They're looking good, they're cost effective and they provide good benefits," Wallace said of today's simulators.
Holley Thomas, a 26-year-old structural welder for KBR, was impressed with the quality of the gaming consoles on display.
"They're awesome," she said. "I think they are an important part of any training curriculum."
In the 1990s, simulators were extremely expensive, sometimes costing millions of dollars, and they were produced in limited numbers. Today's gaming platforms—such as the Wii—have helped boost the quality, speed and availability of industrial training simulators.
Where will construction simulators go next? Wallace thinks they will keep branching out into nitty-gritty craft training, such as the virtual paint booth.
"Slower to adopt has been some of the skilled-trade simulators, like in welding, plumbing and pipefitting," said Wallace. "That area in the construction industry is about to blossom in a significant way."