Title: NGRAIN: Interactive 3-D defence-industry training solutions

Sub-title: NGRAIN is helping military and defence organizations incorporate sophisticated E-learning tools into their training curricula



Today’s armed forces need to be on the cutting edge of the world’s most innovative technologies. But leveraging those technologies properly, means that soldiers, officers and defence industry personnel need to be taught how to use them.  That means getting the right training, to the right people, as efficiently and effectively as possible, is in itself becoming a key competitive military advantage.


One Vancouver-based company has become a world leader by helping armed forces do just that. “The old teaching methods don’t work anymore,” says Paul Lindahl, president and chief executive officer of NGRAIN, a company that helps armed force personal integrate interactive 3-D technology into task-based maintenance training curricula.


“Today’s 18- and 19-year old recruits grew up using laptops, handheld devices and the Internet,” says Lindahl. “If you throw a three ring course binder on their desk, you are not taking full advantage of their learning capabilities.”


Lindahl should know. Over the years, NGRAIN has helped a blue chip client list, including the Department of National Defence, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin and a slew of others, streamline their training techniques. NGRAIN’s technology has been used for applications ranging from teaching soldiers how to repair armored vehicle parts, to providing military personnel with 3-D plans of complex equipment such as helicopters and fighter aircraft.


During the past decade he has seen a sea-change in attitudes regarding education methods. “The United States’ armed forces are going through a remarkable transformation in the way they fight and the way that they think,” Lindahl said. “So it’s not surprising that they should also be changing the way they teach.”


Leveraging complex knowledge

Lindahl co-founded NGRAIN in July 2000, but before he did, he demonstrated the company’s technology in a variety of sectors and industries. Of all the education and business professionals that he talked to, none saw the potential benefits as quickly as those in the defence organizations.


Industry professionals quickly recognized that NGRAIN technology would help relieve two key problems: the difficulty in obtaining expensive military equipment for use in training facilities and the scarcity of highly specialized professionals in key areas.


“There is a growing recognition that problem with a lot of industry knowledge, is that it is held by a few highly educated specialists,” Lindahl said. “But if you convert that information into an NGRAIN Knowledge Object, you can bring it into the classroom and the field and thereby vastly multiply its value.”


Minimizing costly equipment deployments

NGRAIN’s interactive 3-D training solutions also help armed forces tackle another big problem facing military trainers: the huge cost of the equipment that they deploy and work with. Whether it be an armored vehicle, aircraft or even a ship, military equipment costs today run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and often into the hundreds of millions. Because the equipment is so expensive, armed forces decision makers are under enormous pressure to make operational deployments as quickly as possible.


In practice that means educational personnel have a hard time getting access to high demand equipment for training purposes. “Many maintenance personnel don’t even see the equipment that they are supposed to repair until they get out into the field,” says Lindahl. “That doesn’t seem right.”


The rise of interactive 3-D learning in the defence industry

NGRAIN technology is at the forefront of two training innovations: interactive learning and the integration of 3-D graphics into course materials. “Better teaching can vastly improve modern armed forces productivity,” explains Lindahl. “If people read or watch something, they will remember between 10 to 20 percent of the material. But if they do something themselves through an online interactive simulation, they will often remember between 80 and 90 percent.”


NGRAIN solutions improve installation, repair and maintenance training productivity, by integrating complex information in the form of what the company calls Knowledge Objects. An NGRAIN Knowledge Object is an interactive three-dimensional model or scene that visually communicates information about the equipment, machinery or assembly it represents. Knowledge Objects can either be produced from scratch using NGRAIN software, or built based on information imported from third party 3-D CAD software. 


The use of Knowledge Objects makes it far easier for course participants, maintenance personnel or even soldiers in the field, to understand sophisticated concepts.  As a result, they accelerate maintenance training on complex equipment, ensure that repairs are done right the first time and optimize a unit’s operational readiness.


NGRAIN Solutions: Software and Services

According to Gabe Batstone, the company’s vice-president of sales and professional services, the heart of an NGRAIN solution is the company’s Producer software, which enables Microsoft Office users to quickly produce their own interactive 3-D Knowledge Objects. To these they can add animations, assembly and disassembly tasks, as well as links to reference materials which contain background information. “Our challenge in many cases is to make incredibly complex technology very simple,” says Batstone.


Once they are constructed, Knowledge Objects can be inserted into various forms of courseware including an NGRAIN training aid template, html page or a third-party application such as Microsoft Office. Course developers can also use NGRAIN technology to add interactive features to Knowledge Objects.


These can then deployed either onto a normal desktop computer, or a laptop or handheld and viewed using NGRAIN’s free viewing software called Mobilizer. That means with an NGRAIN interactive 3D training solution, personnel can learn, practice and review procedures in the classroom and at home. Then once the coursework is finished and they get back to their operational units, they continue to have access to the information electronically.


But NGRAIN software is only one part of the solution. The company’s services division is just as important. “We have a lot of experience providing defence organizations with training solutions,” Batstone says. “However many of them are only scratching the surface of interactive 3-D learning’s potential. Our service department can identify training productivity improvement opportunities as well as help implement those solutions.”  Other NGRAIN services include 3-D Knowledge Object design, training and mentoring support, remote technical assistance and on-site consulting.


Stryker: Battle Damage Assessment and Repair (BDAR) training solutions

According to Anil Sabharwal, NGRAIN’s vice-president (marketing and business development), one good example of the dramatic possibilities of interactive 3-D learning can be seen at the Stryker armored vehicle Battle Damage and Assessment and Repair facilities at Camp Victory in Iraq, where the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (Tradoc) has been using the technology to deliver potentially life-saving training to soldiers on the front line.


“The Stryker has an important role in troop transport and protection in Iraq,” says Sabharwal. “However one favored insurgent technique has been to attempt to disable the vehicle by damaging its tires. This is not an easy task, given their size and durability. But disabled Stryker tires were becoming a problem often enough, that getting repair training to the soldiers in the field became an immediate priority.”


Extensive feedback from soldiers quickly revealed that the Stryker tire problem was emblematic of a generalized need for rapid extensive Battle Damage Assessment and Repair Training. A distributed learning course development process typically takes between 12 to 18 months to complete. However lives were at stake, so U.S. training personnel wanted a complete solution in the field as soon as possible. Working with the Army, NGRAIN and partners Camber, C2 Technologies and CollabWorx, were able to deploy a final version of the project in just 90 days.


U.S. Army puts the brakes to expensive training

One could argue that because of the large and sophisticated vehicle fleets that it operates,-- tanks, jeeps, armored vehicles, trucks and so on, -- that the U.S. Army is also the world’s premier trainer of military vehicle maintenance personnel. Not surprisingly, the units within are constantly on the lookout for new ways to increase their effectiveness.


“NGRAIN offers a new way to reduce costs, while also accelerating maintenance training,” says Larry Helms, director of the U.S. Army’s Lifelong Learning Center. “NGRAIN 3-D virtual equipment enables task based training to be rapidly produced and delivered in response to mission needs.”


One clear example of NGRAIN’s productivity advantage was its work in providing a solution for a U.S. Army school that was having trouble with its 16 ageing brakes simulators, which were constantly malfunctioning or out of service. NGRAIN’s solution consisted of substituting the costly $1.3 million brake simulators, with an interactive 3-D training solution. The move was a spectacular success, cutting courseware developments costs by 60% and ongoing courseware maintenance costs by 80%. As a result, NGRAIN officials are now studying how to leverage the knowledge they gained by applying similar solutions in other training facilities.


JSF: Breakthrough defence technologies

One key initiative that will significantly enhance NGRAIN’s credibility going forward will be the company’s participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the largest military initiative that the world has ever seen. Late last year, Technology Partnerships Canada announced $5 million worth of participation in NGRAIN’s development of 3-D software technologies to boost productivity in the F-35’s design, assembly and maintenance.


The F-35 JSF program will be on the cutting edge of countless of the world’s most leading technological innovations, including materials, ordinance, communications equipment, stealth capabilities and avionics. As a result, personnel training will be a key element determining how effectively the aircraft gets produced, deployed and used. Participation in the program will no doubt provide NGRAIN with countless opportunities to leverage its technology going forward.


Endless possibilities: the transformation of defence industry training

As for the future, NGRAIN’s possibilities are almost limitless says Lindahl. Canada’s soldiers are a collective insurance policy to protect our territory, provide disaster relief and to help maintain Canada’s presence on an international stage. But today’s armed forces are also to a large degree one big educational institution.


On a day-to-day basis, a surprising amount of the modern soldier’s time, starting with general military training, through his first years in the CF, is spent doing coursework, either at a desk, in the field or at his assigned workplace. For officers, technicians and specialty staff, the percentage of time spent learning is even higher. “If they are not war, they are learning how to conduct war,” Lindahl says. “Every extra minute a soldier spends learning and rehearsing his role, increases the chances that he will successfully complete his mission.”


However despite recent rapid technological advances, and the drastic fall in the price of computer hardware, a lot the training done by armed forces around the world continues performed the old fashioned way.  That leaves open the possibility of dramatic productivity improvements for military and defence organizations that can most quickly incorporate modern training methods into their operational agendas.


Recognizing this, the U.S. Department of Defence made new improvements in the maintenance of complex equipment and machinery the subject of its Great Ideas Competition at its Maintenance Symposium last year. The symposium brings together top government and industry representatives, who trade productivity improvement ideas through a series of technical programs, senior level presentations and exhibits. Not surprisingly, NGRAIN was one of the five finalists chosen to present its ideas. The company’s presentation, titled “Empowering Subject Matter Experts to Rapidly Produce Interactive 3-D Simulations for Maintenance Training,” ended up winning top honors.


According to CEO Lindahl, the openness of top defence officials to interactive training methods is good news for companies like NGRAIN, who are on the cutting edge in the field. “Our technology is increasingly being embraced by armed forces personnel around the world,” says Lindhal. “Our immediate competition is paper. But things are changing quickly and the future looks bright.”




Corporate Snapshot


Company: NGRAIN (Canada) Corp..

Canadian Operations: Paul Lindahl, President and CEO

Key Installations: Vancouver, Ottawa, Washington D.C., Austin, Texas

Employees: 75

Products and services: Interactive 3-D based training solutions.

Exports: Approximately 50%+


Peter Diekmeyer (peter@peterdiemeyer.com) is a senior writer with Canadian Defence Review.







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