GERMANY: One of the largest construction companies in Europe deploys Volvo simulators in a unique teaching program
by Nigel Griffiths
Located in the small, rustic town of Bebra in Hessen, Germany, is an 88,000-square-meter site packed with of all types construction equipment from giant excavators to mini diggers. This is the ‘learning center’ of STRABAG, one of Europe’s largest construction companies.
It is unique as a dedicated location for training the next generation of construction machine operators. And this year, the STRABAG training process has moved to a new level with the introduction of two state-of-the-art Volvo simulators.
The simulators, developed for Volvo in Sweden, seat a student in the mock cabin of an excavator, wheel loader or other heavy machine, and through giant video displays, movement, vibration and sound, give him or her a virtual experience of operating the machine in a practical work situation.
“The Volvo simulators have added a new dimension to the way we work,” says Firas Ajouri, head of training at the STRABAG center. “We can now center our basic training programs around the simulators before putting the students on real machines.”
“We acquired our first simulator earlier this year and were so impressed that we bought a second one,” Ajouri continues. But not content with just the simulators, the STRABAG center has recently taken delivery of a Volvo EWR150E wheeled excavator for the students to practice on.
“Our students are able to go straight from undertaking excavating projects on the Volvo simulator, to sitting in the cabin of the real thing.”
The simulators are extremely realistic and can tip, roll and shudder as the operator maneuvers the heavy ‘virtual’ load.
“They are much more relaxed on the simulator and can make mistakes without expensive consequences,” says Ajouri. “On the simulator they work through a range of construction work sequences, some up to three hours long. If they make a mistake, they do it again, with no damage incurred. We have a wide range of projects for them to work on during their three-year training at the center.”
In the past, the students would start their training on mini excavators. “We found that they would be overly cautious on the machines for fear of making a mistake. The simulators can be quickly reconfigured from being an excavator to become a wheel loader, and it also trains them to think of issues such as best work practice and fuel consumption,” Ajouri continues.
“Also, thanks to the new simulators we can now provide uninterrupted training. Whatever the weather outside, whether it is summer or winter, we can work on perfecting the skills of our future machine operators.”
Ajouri came to Germany from Syria 30 years ago and joined the local construction equipment firm, Hermann Kirchner, where he pioneered the development of the training center from the ground up. Eight years ago, Hermann Kirchner was acquired by STRABAG and since then Ajouri has spearheaded a major expansion of the training center with the support of top management. It has moved to the current site with training rooms and excavation practice sites and is currently being expanded to include an onsite residential block with capacity for 140 beds.
STRABAG describes the Bebra complex as a ‘learning center’ (Konzern-Lehrwerkstatt – KLW) as it provides a broad range of tuition covering road construction and ground engineering as well as construction machinery, vehicle fleet management, mechatronics and industrial mechanics. The center has four trainers and currently some 120 trainees.
It also has sports facilities (soccer) for the students and a gymnasium. Bicycles are provided to give them full mobility in the area. “We want the students to feel fully integrated and part of a big team or family. This way they study better. Sport is part of this process. They all learn together,” Ajouri stresses.
STRABAG sees the KLW center as an investment in the future. “STRABAG’s top managers come here to personally see the work we are doing,” Ajouri explains. “The company realizes that, although it is one of the best in Europe today, to retain this position it has to invest in its key resource – its operators.”
The KLW center takes students from all over Germany and Austria. It has even welcomed 14 enthusiastic refugees to train for jobs in the construction industry. Overall, more than 90% of students are offered employment within STRABAG after the three-year training period.
“What is tremendous for us is that the simulators allow us to observe the students at work via a remote screen. The analytics show us which tasks they are good at and where practice is needed. The simulators also help identify the type of machine they are most suited to operate: for some it may be an excavator, others might be better suited to wheel loaders or road pavers. One way or another, we find their niche.”
Sascha Dick, after sales manager at Volvo CE distributor Swecon, says that STRABAG is an important customer for Volvo CE and buys some 60 Volvo machines each year, mostly compact wheel loaders. These machines are used across Europe.
STRABAG operates the only apprentice school of this scale in Germany, says Dick. He expects the training programs to have a big impact in the years to come.
“Training new generations of operators for increasingly complex construction equipment is vital. There is much infrastructure work planned around Europe which will be in great need of properly trained operators,” he says.
Volvo CE’s Global Key Accounts Director in Germany, Thomas Stemper, is delighted with the choice of Volvo at the KLW center: “Working on Volvo simulators and machines at the beginning of their career will allow trainees to appreciate the quality of the Volvo machine. In their future careers, they could be our product ambassadors.”
Leading the way in construction
STRABAG AG, headquartered in Cologne, is part of the Austrian consortium of STRABAG SE, one of the largest European construction groups, with some 73,000 employees worldwide. It is active in Austria and Germany and in all countries of Eastern and South-East Europe, as well as in Canada, Chile, Africa and the Middle East.
It is a major partner in many construction projects around Europe. It helped build Ireland’s 675-meter-long Limerick Tunnel under the River Shannon. It is also involved in the UK’s Crossrail project and is a consortium partner, alongside Skanska and Costain, in Britain’s future HS2 high-speed rail extension. Operating worldwide, it has helped to build China’s high-speed railway track, too, in a project building 80 kilometers of tunnels, 280 km of bridges and 140 km of earth structures.