Simulation Software Helps Production Workers Learn Faster

February 26, 2009

New research highlights potential productivity gains resulting from the use of digital simulation as a training aid for undertaking complex assembly tasks—but also pinpoints the limitations.

Using industry-standard Dassault Systémes CATIA and DELMIA product life-cycle management (PLM) applications, researchers constructed animated simulations showing aircraft panels being assembled. These simulations were then used to train operatives on the factory floor to assemble the panels. The results were then compared with those achieved by workers using conventional written instructions, and written instructions supplemented by illustrations.

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The research—carried out by the department of mechanics and aerospace at Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, which has strong links to the aerospace industry—Montréal-based aircraft manufacturer Bombardier, for instance, has a major manufacturing plant in the city—showed distinct differences in assembly performance.

Operators trained to assemble particular panels by watching animated simulations were quickest to master the task—37 percent faster than those leaning by written instruction, and 16 percent quicker than those using words supplemented by static images.

Even when operators gained hands-on experience building the panel, the advantage of the Dassault applications remained: The time taken to build a batch of five panels was 14 percent lower for a group of individuals working to animated simulations rather than conventional manufacturing instructions.

“If you can see the movement, and see the process happening, it’s a lot more cognitionally efficient than building up a representation of it in your head, from words,” explains Gareth Watson, a postgraduate student who undertook the research.

“Learning by watching is the most basic form of learning known to man: Neurons fire in your brain when you see people do something—and they are the same neurons that fire when you are actually doing it yourself,” adds Cathy Craig, senior lecturer in visual perception at Queen’s School of Psychology.

But animated simulations aren’t a universal panacea for assembly woes. While they help operators complete tasks faster, the knowledge gained from the use of simulations was shallower. Even after building five panels, operators trained by simulation were still making mistakes—whereas those using conventional manufacturing instructions were error-free.

“Copying is ‘surface learning’, and there’s a lot less high-level analysis, interpretation, and consolidating to memory going on,” says Dr. Craig. “It’s like being a passenger in a car, versus driving it yourself following a map. Retracing the route is more difficult, and you’re more likely to make mistakes.”