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The costs and benefits of simulation-based training: Key considerations

August 7, 2018  By CM Labs

The construction industry has seen steady growth over the past decade, fuelled by significant building and infrastructure projects. However, finding skilled crane and heavy equipment operators has proven to be increasingly difficult. For example, a 2017 poll indicated that over 75 per cent of construction firms were having trouble finding skilled equipment operators.

There is no argument that operators need to be trained; however, training can be a risky activity that can’t be taken lightly. Vehicle/equipment accidents are the leading cause of workplace deaths on construction worksites, and placing inexperienced operators on machinery can add unnecessary risk to the student, the instructor and the worksite in general.

Aside from the risk of injury, the cost of construction equipment training can be substantial. One company interviewed noted that renting equipment to train student operators costs between $8,000-10,000 per month. After adding wages, fuel, insurance, and maintenance, the annual cost of training can top $100,000 per piece of equipment.

Simulation as a solution
The use of computer-generated simulation for training purposes has a long history in the flight industry. Saving flight time, fuel costs, and wear and tear on planes, not to mention avoiding risk, simulation has been the defacto standard for commercial pilots since the 1970s.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, companies focusing on the simulation of mechanical vehicles and earthworks started to appear, offering training simulators for construction scenarios.

These terrestrial simulators share similar benefits with flight simulators — lowering both the operating costs and the risks involved in a novice training on the real equipment.

The investment in simulation-based training can not only help to fill employee and training gaps, but do so in a cost-effective, efficient, and safety conscious way.

This paper reviews the traditional costs of training, the savings that simulation can provide, and additional benefits of integrating simulators into training programs.

It also shows how two organizations have successfully implemented simulation-based training programs and highlights key considerations when determining how to evaluate if simulation fits into your training program.

The traditional costs of training
Training recruits into worksite-ready crane and heavy equipment operators is essential for a safe construction industry. Conducting training programs on machinery has both direct and indirect costs; implications to consider when evaluating the costs of your current training.

Direct costs

Equipment: Crucial to any training program is having the machinery on hand. The price tag on construction equipment can be quite substantial; full-sized backhoes range between $50,000 and $80,000, motor graders can cost between $200,000 and $500,000, and tower cranes can stretch into the $1 million to $2 million range. Even with discounted long-term rates, rentals of the same machinery can end up costing even more.

Fuel: Cranes and heavy equipment need fuel to power their engines and motors. For every hour of use, there will be a fuel cost that adds up quickly. For example, a new wheel loader, burning 3.75 gallons of fuel per hour, could cost between $18,500 to $22,500 in diesel per year.

Maintenance: In general, machines need to be kept in good working condition, with costs including replacing lubricant and tires, the parts required for repairs and the field-rate for mechanics.

Wages: A certified, qualified, and trustworthy operator needs to be on hand during training to offer mentoring and supervision. Their wage is a cost of training that can add up quickly.

Insurance: Operators need to be insured against damages to protect both them and your organization.

Indirect costs

Productivity: Along with paying an instructor to provide training, there is an additional “opportunity cost” as that particular operator’s work isn’t contributing to the completion of a project. Similarly, equipment being borrowed from the worksite to offer training could have been used toward progressing the job.

Injuries: Inexperience is a major factor in workplace injuries; therefore, student operators present an added risk. Injuries add significant costs to a worksite, with each workplace injury costing an average of $38,000 in direct and indirect costs.

These can include:

  • Lost/decreased productivity
  • Production downtime
  • Administrative costs
  • Unwarranted negative media attention
  • Potential OSHA penalties
  • Attorney fees
  • Damage to equipment, machinery, and facility
  • Higher Worker’s Comp premiums
  • Reputation loss
  • Degraded client loyalty and support
  • Managerial costs including inspections, investigations, meetings, and administration
  • Loss of employee morale
  • Slowed work pace due to other employees fear of injury

The savings of simulation
Simulation holds some key advantages when compared to traditional training. While simulation is noted as a “risk-free” training experience, it also offers a “cost-reduced” tool that can provide an experience transferable to the jobsite. Some areas of differentiation have been highlighted below:

Direct costs

Equipment: While simulation does have a cost, the digital nature of it makes it much more affordable. With construction simulators ranging from $10,000 to $100,000-plus, based on features, simulation can fit in many budgets at an investment lower than most machinery. Some simulation vendors have also developed hardware (simulators) that allows for interchangeable training modules. Equipment costs can be shared across multiple training programs, useful for larger organizations that previously required the rental or purchase of numerous machines.

Fuel: Aside from electricity and networking costs, fuel is not required for simulation-based training.

Maintenance: The cost of repairing a simulator is much less expensive than labor-intensive repairs needed on real equipment. As well, by lowering use time and therefore wear-and-tear on the equipment, items like tires and lubricant last longer and need to be replaced less often.

Wages: With trainees requiring close supervision on real machines, instructors are limited to working in a one-to-one ratio with students. However, simulation is less risky, meaning that oversight can be spread among students, and one instructor can train multiple students at a time. Similarly, training can be pre-programmed and recorded, meaning students can access the simulation without an instructor on hand, and their performance can be assessed and evaluated at a later, more convenient time.

Insurance: While student operators will need to be insured to use real equipment, less time spent on machines may positively affect premiums.

Indirect costs

Productivity: Instruction is important; however, simulation can be used as a self-directed exercise for student operators. With instructors being freed up during these self-directed sessions, and fewer instructors required in general, experienced operators can return to productive work. Similarly, machinery can be put back into productive rotation.

Injuries: One of the key benefits of simulation is its safety. Time on the simulator is time that is injury free.

Things to consider when evaluating simulation
Like any other purchase, it’s important to evaluate how simulation will affect your budget and your processes. The following are some key considerations to keep in mind while you’re looking at simulation providers:

  • Your current training costs are an important figure to know. Having this number on hand lets you compare as you gather information on simulation.
  • Only accurate simulation is transferable to the worksite, so ask vendors specific questions and have experienced operators test the simulation.
  • Enquire about the simulation platform and the ability to run multiple machines from one simulator. This can help defer the costs, especially when training a large fleet of machinery.
  • Think about how simulation would affect your current training costs:For each hour of training shifted to simulation, there are savings in terms of fuel, maintenance, and rental costs.
  • Training on a simulator can be concentrated, as weather and time of day do not affect simulators.
  • Instructors can manage more than one simulator simultaneously, which may increase student throughput.
  • If certain training exercises are more prone to causing accidents or injuries, these are ideal exercises to move to simulation ASAP.

For questions about the article or how simulation can fit into your training program, email

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