By Keith Norbury

Before they take the controls of a Goliath dock gantry crane at a Scottish shipyard, operators are first testing their abilities on a simulator made by a Montreal-based company. The Vortex simulator, built by CMLabs Simulations Inc., actually arrived at shipbuilding giant Babcock’s Rosyth shipyard near Edinburgh before the crane itself, noted Arnold Free, CMLabs’ Chief Operating Officer. “It’s an interesting project because we actually had the simulator in place about three or four months before the actual crane was commissioned,” Mr. Free said. “So they were able to start training their guys long before the actual crane was in operation.”

The crane itself is a Goliath model manufactured by Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. Ltd. of Shanghai, China. Before the crane was delivered to Rosyth, CMLabs dispatched engineers to Shanghai to meet with engineers at ZPMC in order to develop the simulation software for that particular crane. “That’s how we’re able to actually deliver a good simulation of the machine before it was even commissioned,” Mr. Free said, adding later, “Those kind of cranes tend to be very custom to each shipyard because they have different stands and different capacities.”

Commissioned in June 2011, the crane is being used “in the assembly and integration of the U.K.’s new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers,” says an item on Babcock’s website. Capable of lifting 1,000 tonnes, the crane stands 68 metres to the underside of its main beams and has a span of 120 metres. This March, Babcock reported that the Goliath crane had successfully lifted a 600-tonne forward island into position on to HMS Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck. For that project, the crane was fitted with a special 78-tonne lifting frame. “Although not the heaviest lift of the project, the island’s geometry and shape presented significant challenges,” Babcock reported. ”Also demanding was the alignment of the 2.4 metre diameter gas turbine exhausts which were pre-fitted in the island and below in the ship superstructure.”

While the Goliath crane is huge, Babcock’s budget for the simulator wasn’t. Vortex simulators include full-immersion models with as many as eight screens. A system fitted with a small classroom inside a 40-foot shipping container can cost upwards of $350,000. The Goliath simulator is a dual-display system, “without a motion base or anything,” said Mr. Free, who described it as “more of an entry-level solution” that costs $50,000 to $70,000. “You know what it’s like with training budgets,” Mr. Free said. “It’s the last thing to be thought about – oh yeah, we’ve got to train our guys.”

In the case of the Goliath simulator, it is capable of replicating many, although not all, of the lifts required during construction of the vessels. Enabling that capability required replicating the shipyard around the crane. “So we went in, got drawings of the site, and did some photography,” he said. “We replicated that drydock, the crane (obviously), and the various parts of the lifts that had to be performed, so that when you sit in the simulator it looks like you’re sitting in the real crane.”

CMLabs creates simulators for many kinds of cranes, including port cranes, as well as other industrial equipment, such as bomb-disposal units for the Belgian army. However, the Goliath model is the first Vortex simulator used in shipbuilding. “I’ll be honest. It’s not an industry we’ve really targeted but it is an industry we certainly should put a bit more attention on,” Mr. Free said. For example, he speculated that billions of dollars in shipbuilding contracts through the federal National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy might open opportunities at Irving Shipbuilding Inc. in Halifax. (Spokespersons at Irving and at Seaspan, which won the NSPS non-combat vessel contracts on the west coast, didn’t respond to requests for interviews.) “We have talked a little bit to some shipyards in Brazil,” Mr. Free said. “So there’s interest there. But we haven’t seen the same level of interest that we’ve seen in ports.”

That interest in port crane simulations, however, has been outside of Canada. They include a technical college in Houston, a Liebherr training school near Santos, Brazil, and ports in Kuwait and South Africa. “And we just closed a deal with Patrick terminals in Sydney, Australia, and that’s to be delivered in June,” Mr. Free said.

Despite being a Canadian company, CMLabs hasn’t sold any simulators for Canadian port operations, although Port of Montreal and BC Maritime Employers Association use simulators made by non-Canadian manufacturers. Port of Halifax, which currently doesn’t use simulators, has expressed an interest in Vortex, Mr. Free said. However, he expects a tough sell given the current economic climate when ports aren’t operating at full capacity. “It’s hard to make the argument to invest in simulation when you have cranes sitting idle that are available for training,” Mr. Free said.

His company had it roots in a computer-gaming developer called Math Engine, which had teams in the U.K. and Montreal. The latter, which had created the Karma physics engine for video games, was spun off to become CMLabs. The focus then shifted from games to heavy equipment, such as robotics simulations of Mars, for customers like NASA, Lockheed Martin, and Honda. It proved to be a savvy shift. The company is growing, along with demand for computer simulations. Three years ago, it employed about 25 people. It now has about 100 employees. “We’ve grown a lot,” Mr. Free said. “It’s very strong growth in this industry, not only in ports but offshore, and the construction industry. “ Offshore projects include training bandsmen (signallers) and slingers at the PNI Training Centre in Stavanger, Norway in partnership with a European firm, Antycip Simulation.