Why VR Is the Future of Diesel Training — from a Diesel Expert

A female figure in work coveralls with a diesel truck on a lift behind her.

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Virtual Reality (VR) has been making waves across the transportation industry for years. Diesel Technicians work on and with evolving technology to keep the nation’s goods moving. For industries that depend on diesel technology — such as construction, agriculture, transport, and more — traditional training methods (lots of classroom time, book and video learning, and hands-on sessions in limited-capacity labs) have long been the way things are done.

However, VR training is revolutionizing how professionals in these sectors learn their trades and hone their skills. This is coming about for a lot of reasons, but across every skilled trade, seasoned professionals are aging out or otherwise leaving their professions. In the diesel technician industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’ll need 177,000 trained technicians between 2022 and 2026. Looking at the numbers of students leaving college with a degree or certification in Diesel Technology, we have a problem:

To meet the demand for Diesel Technicians, we’ll need to train about 44,000 new tradespeople per year. In 2021, however, fewer than 11,000 students completed a postsecondary diesel program. Penske, one of the leading truck carriers in the US, is dealing with an extreme deficit when it comes to new technicians entering the field. While there are many reasons for this technician deficit, the old way of teaching probably isn’t helping (and this coming from a seasoned Diesel Technician and college instructor with almost two decades experience in the field).

Here is another statistic that may surprise you: In my recent classes (which had about 20 students each), 80% of them were sponsored students. This means they were hired from a local company to become Diesel Technicians. They signed a contract with the company, and because the company is paying for their schooling, they are required to stay for a set number of years — this means only 4 students in my class of 20 will be free to be recruited into the industry.

VR diesel training can help to boost the number of well-trained students leaving a two-year program in a variety of ways: Including making these programs more cost effective and helping augment instructors and streamline trainers. VR training can also bring big benefits to businesses. Let’s dig into how!

VR lowers the costs of starting a diesel program

The cost to start a diesel program for colleges is enormous, with just the cost of trucks alone for students to work on reaching up to a million dollars. That amount of money is difficult for most schools to come up with. Sure, grant funding can be a massive part of the initial start-up budget, but grants often can’t be used to fund ongoing projects. This means that after some time (maybe 3 to 5 years?), the school will inherit the ongoing cost of the program into their regular operating budget.

Money aside, what if students don’t materialize to fill the program? What will happen to the department if students choose other majors and decide not to become technicians? These considerations are huge problems and often contribute to schools not diving into this large of an undertaking.

Insert VR skills training into the equation and see how budgetary concerns change: With VR, a school can start a program and gauge student interest as well as exploring local company partnerships — all while spending less money to start building the diesel department. This means more students enrolling, leading to increased revenue. This makes adding more serious equipment to a new program easier because students are already there and are showing an interest in becoming a Diesel Technician.

Colleges can also start building classroom-to-career pathways in high schools with VR. By teaming up with other Transfr partners, colleges can use the headsets to introduce students to diesel tasks and generate student interest. Allowing students to explore rebuilding an engine or changing a tire from a semi-truck gives them a glimpse into a small part of what it takes to become a technician. Once students have gone through the simulations and fallen in love with the career pathway, they enroll in the technician training program at a college, and the revenue begins. (All that can happen before a school has even purchased the trucks to train these future technicians.)

VR diesel training helps familiarize students with tools and tasks

One of the biggest strengths of VR diesel training is familiarizing students with the tools they’ll use on the job before they step on the shop floor. From a safety standpoint, this is invaluable: Having students know how to properly use the tools makes them less likely to misuse one and possibly hurt themselves or damage a vehicle. Fewer errors and injuries protects people and a business’s bottom line.

How familiar do you want your workers to be with all the different types of vehicles and equipment out there? Most students haven’t changed the cylinder head on a Cummins engine, but through VR simulations, they can do just that.

These simulations, which I helped design, perfectly mimic the real world processes. Case in point: While reinstalling the cylinder head, a torque wrench must be used to properly execute a torque sequence that will ensure an even pressure distribution and to prevent the cylinder head from warping. In the real world, once the torque wrench has reached the target torque set by the technician, it buzzes, and different colored lights illuminate. This exact process also happens in virtual reality. Once the Technician reaches the target torque, the VR hand controller buzzes, and the lights on the torque wrench in the simulation illuminate.

Students complete workplace-specific tasks in virtual environments that perfectly mimic real-world job sites. Learning these tasks in the classroom and VR and a practice lab before entering a shop makes the task sheets easier for students going through a certified AED or ASE Technician training program.

VR diesel training benefits for businesses

Businesses employing Diesel Techs can also benefit from using VR. Take a technician working in a tire shop as an example: To become familiar with different tire sizes and the information found on the sidewall of a tire, newly hired technicians can go through the simulations related to changing a tire and learn what the information means.

This can lead to selling opportunities for the business that can improve their bottom line — now that the technician has learned how to date a tire via VR (and received a micro credential), they can perform tire inspections. Encouraging customers to replace old, unsafe tires keeps the operator and other drivers safer and translates into more money for the shop.

There are a good number of simulations that can be used for upskilling technicians to provide a better experience for the shop and customers alike. Safety is also something Transfr takes seriously, and they have built simulations around helping prevent different dangerous situations that can occur in a diesel shop.

Virtual reality training does not take up shop space because it can be done in an office or classroom. This means no more tying up shop space to perform training; thus, the business can continue to operate as normal and make a profit.

Building the future of diesel programs with VR

Training has come a long way in my lifetime — even before VR came along and revolutionized everything. VR will never fully replace human instructors or live hands-on learning sessions in a lab setting. However, integrating VR into your skilled trade program can help lower the cost for colleges to start a Diesel Technician training program. VR can also benefit shop owners, working diesel technicians, and customers alike.

VR does all this while providing a safe place for people to engage in learning at a price point that many programs can afford. Best of all, new simulations are constantly coming out, helping to keep any program on the cutting edge of this evolving industry without countless hours of additional continuing education for instructors, buying new equipment, and more.

Want to learn more about VR diesel training simulations?

Mark DeHart
Mark DeHart
Mark DeHart, Diesel Technology Subject Matter Expert at Transfr, is the Owner and Lead Developer at D&L Education Solutions, where his team assists colleges and companies with developing training departments that are effective and innovative. He’s also a leading author in Diesel Engine Technology with Goodheart-Willcox Company, Inc. Mark has worked in the diesel field for over 18 years, starting his career in the US Army as a Diesel Technician and continuing as a technical trainer training new and seasoned Technicians worldwide. When he’s not designing training programs and leveraging his diesel expertise, he enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife and three daughters and outdoor activities in the Great Smoky Mountains.