Jim Simpson never thought he would fly a ready-mix truck. In his 27 years in the ready-mix business, he has done everything from driving trucks to managing environmental health and safety programs. But now that Simpson is in charge of Walker Concrete's driver training simulator in Jonesboro, Ga., he is learning something new every day.

The “flying” is actually a hidden feature in MPRI's Mark III Motion-Based Driver Training Simulator's advanced software, a crossover from one of its other uses—flight simulation. MPRI's transportation simulators were developed as an extension of its military and aviation training.

While flight is not an option Simpson typically uses, it does lighten the mood of an intense training session. “You have to have fun with it,” he says. “I want the drivers to leave with a positive attitude, not feeling like training is a chore.”

Jim Naatz, MPRI Simulation Group vice president of sales, sees early adopters like Walker Concrete and Nashville's Metro Ready Mix Concrete as just the beginning of a technological revolution in training for the concrete industry.

“As this training technology becomes more affordable and awareness of its effectiveness increases, producers can value its quick return on investment,” Naatz says. “Other producers have already approached us about ways to adapt and tailor the technology to offer something over and above what their competitors are doing.” He believes the learning curve for ready-mix producers will be even faster than it has been in the trucking industry.

Naatz has seen his other trucking industry customers' preventable accidents decrease by 20% to 30% in the past few years. “We're seeing the concrete industry follow the same path in terms of adopting this technology,” says Naatz. “I have no reason to believe ready-mix producers won't see the same benefits.”

Soaring to new heights

Simpson, Walker's vice president of risk management, became involved with the simulator after owner Doug Walker took a flight training course. “I spent 10 days on a flight simulator and figured the same thing would work with trucks,” says Walker. So far, his hunch was correct. Walker has invested almost $500,000 in the simulator and its software programs. The system has already paid for itself.

Since Walker's drivers began using the Mark III simulator in January, the producer has noticed much lower maintenance and fuel costs, and a drastic reduction in accidents. Simpson says the cost of a minor truck accident is about eight times the actual cost of damages to the vehicle. In a roll-over accident, these costs can add up to $600,000. “An average company rolls two trucks a year,” he says. “That cost alone could buy two simulators.”

To prevent costly accidents at Walker, the company has programmed its simulator to perform just like its own fleet, with a nine-yard load and 9-foot center of gravity. Drivers sit in an actual 2000 Freightliner day cab mounted on a mechanical base that creates realistic movements as they maneuver through each computerized course. Three large screens create a 180-degree landscape, while two small screens simulate the rear view in the truck's side mirrors. The cab is even air conditioned.

As drivers navigate pre-programmed scenarios, computers track every aspect of their trip, including speed, gear shifting, and braking. By watching the drivers on a closed circuit monitor and analyzing a detailed diagnostic printout, the training team identifies bad habits, such as using the brake instead of gearing down to stop.