JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – There is a bit more than 11 secret herbs and spices in Kentucky these days, with the home of the colonel’s delicacy now also the place where around 30 000 US coal miners have been trained over the past five years, using vehicle and equipment simulators designed and built in South Africa.
“The Kentucky Coal Academy has 30 of our simulators. It’s a big success story for us,” says Fifth Dimension Technologies (5DT) marketing and sales manager Steven Marshall.
5DT is one of the top three companies worldwide when it comes to designing and building vehicle and equipment training simulators, says COO Mario Schehle.
The Pretoria-based firms client list reads like the who’s who of mining companies, and includes names such as Sasol, Vale, BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Xstrata.
What the 100% locally-owned company does is to create simulators that train operators to handle some really big machines, such as dump trucks, graders, continuous miners, drilling rigs and drag lines, and this in an environment that very much simulates the real thing including dust, fog, rain and slippery roads with red flags popping up quickly when the operator slips up not only in handling the machine, but also in site-specific procedure.
5DT has also developed simulators for smaller machines, such as bakkies.
All of the company’s simulators use the original manufacturer’s consoles and seating, set on an electrical motion base, with all-round screens and sound system imitating a specific, programmed environment.
5DT opened its doors in 1993 with a handful of computer engineers and one best-selling product, says Schehle.
The 5DT Data Glove, still the world’s bestseller, is commonly used in virtual reality environments where the user sees an image of the data glove, and where he or she is then able to manipulate the movements of the virtual environment using the glove.
Today 5DT employs 50 people, of which 25 are computer engineers. The company has sales offices in the US and Australia, with South America to follow soon.
“India also looks promising,” says Marshall.
Mining makes up 75% of 5DTs business in terms of turnover, he adds, with construction and military simulators responsible for the rest.
Around 50% of the mining business turnover is generated abroad.
Schehle says the key in growing the company has been the rapid development of computer technology, which now allows for standard equipment to be used to create a simulator, and no longer the expensive workstations required before.
“The rise of computer games, the graphics, helped us a lot.”
Evidence of this is that floorspace for the company is about to quadruple over the next few weeks as it continues to grow organically.
Schehle notes that 5DT has many advantages over its competitors, including the fact that it has already created simulators for the broadest range of underground coal, underground hard-rock and surface mining equipment.
“One of the key differences between us and our competitors is that we will design what our customer demands, rather than simply offering off-the-shelf solutions,” he adds.
“We also, normally, have a maintenance engineer stationed in the area where a simulator is sold.”
5DT also does not flinch at sending its designers to test-drive the real thing before building a simulator. For example, the company’s dragline designer became a qualified dragline operator before he built the simulator.
A simulator has many advantages, emphasises Marshall.
“The alternative is to train people using real equipment, which can be dangerous as well as costly, as these machines are not out there in the field, working.”
The simulators offer a 90% relation to reality.
Marshall adds that it is also possible to use simulators to test scenarios, such as a truck catching fire, or skidding, which cannot be done with real equipment.
With more than a hundred of the company’s simulators out there, the next big frontier is the transport industry, says Schehle.
“We are looking at how to bring value to the market, such as creating scenarios to train a truck driver to avoid his rig jack-knifing.”
Schehle says it is possible for 5DT to increase business ten, twenty times over the next few years.
“We are fortunate as the entry-barrier to the market is quite high, and we have a ten-year headstart.
“We will continue to innovate and offer fast turnaround times.”