How to Evaluate Flight Simulation Companies
When you’re thinking about purchasing a flight simulator, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of technical specifications. You need to decide between motion and non-motion systems, monitors and projection screens, real and simulated avionics, avionics types, aircraft configurations, and plenty more. The opportunities for customization are nearly endless and certainly deserving of your careful attention. Yet, as you narrow the list of devices that appeal to you, don’t forget to zoom out beyond the scope of the product. Given the level of investment that a certified training device requires, the characteristics and capabilities of the device’s manufacturer can impact your training program more than those of the device itself. You likely know what you want in a simulator, but here a few things to look for when you’re choosing a simulator manufacturer.
Simulation technology is advancing rapidly, and not just in relation to the fidelity of avionics and traditional visual systems. Some of the most exciting technologies of today have potential applications in flight simulation: artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, machine learning, eLearning, and more. If your prospective flight simulator developer is working to leverage one or more of these technologies, then the use cases and lifespan of your device actually can increase over time. After all, technology and training methodology are evolving constantly. If a manufacturer isn’t thinking beyond the simulation engine and the hardware, then the ceiling for your simulator training lowers considerably — both now and for the future.
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While a multi-thousand or million-dollar simulator shouldn’t break down on you frequently, we all know that technology can be a fickle beast. Ultimately, even manufacturers that develop and use proprietary technology have some level of dependency on outside platforms and systems. Couple that with an outsourced support team and you’ll be handed off more than a baton in a relay. And it won’t be a sprint to the finish line either.
If issues arise during training sessions, that can be a problem for your business if you don’t have reliable access to a manufacturer’s support team. Plus, when you’re downloading updates, installing upgrades, or exploring new capabilities of the device, it’s invaluable to have product experts readily available to walk you through processes. Occasionally, you may need to speak to third-party developers and manufacturers, but beginning and ending every conversation with a single point of contact will save you and your customers valuable training time.
It’s the best way to avoid constant contact with the support team. Sure, there are price considerations — both for you and the manufacturer — for how and where components should be sourced and assembled. Unsurprisingly, outsourcing generally yields cheaper prices but cheaper quality too. While it might require more cost up front, a simulator that is manufactured with high-quality components and methods will have a longer lifespan and will be a superior marketing asset for your school.
Plus, sturdy, reliable components have a huge impact on the fidelity of the simulator. All the software features in the world won’t make you feel like you’re flying a real airplane. Nor will high-fidelity visuals immerse you if the yoke is on loan from a video game system. The weight and feedback of the controls, the feel of the knobs, and the accuracy of the motion platform (if relevant) all play an important role in the simulation experience. They don’t have to be exactly right, but they should be realistic enough that you’re focused fully on the flight. With in-house manufacturing capabilities, a simulator provider has the quality control necessary to consistently deliver this level of realism.
Every provider can tell you how their simulators can be used, but the best providers also can tell you how their simulators should be used. For instance, our devices certainly can simulate IMC, heavy turbulence, two failed engines, lost communications, and icing all at once. However, short of humbling the cockiest pilot in your friend group, this unlikely scenario doesn't provide much training value. Just because you can simulate it doesn't mean that you should.
That might be one of the more obvious scenarios to avoid, but the bottom line is implementing simulation effectively into a training program takes time and effort. Even instructors who have extensive experience training in simulators may need time to adjust to the nuances of a new or unfamiliar device. Therefore, to reduce the learning curve, a manufacturer should have resources available to you that marry product expertise with flight training knowledge. Both as an orientation to the manufacturer’s device and as a means for continued learning, resources such as on-site training, web content, training workbooks, and user conferences will help you derive more value from your simulator.
Your prospective provider also should have evidence of customer satisfaction and use cases. Beyond supporting your decision to invest in a manufacturer’s product(s), brand advocates are another helpful resource when you start implementing a new device into your training curriculum. Customers have unique insights gained from the day-to-day operation of the device. Presumably, they also have numbers that demonstrate the financial impact of the device on their operation. Your prospective provider should be able to introduce you to organizations that have successfully implemented a simulator into the type of training that you conduct.
Lastly, and most importantly, your manufacturer of choice should be stable. This can be challenging to evaluate, especially with new manufacturers that arrive on the scene with no track record and a product that’s shiny and different. However, at least keep stability in mind, and in your gut, as an important criterion for evaluating a vendor.
If your manufacturer flames out, basic software or hardware issues can shelve your device indefinitely. In which case, your warranty payments may amount to nothing. And, even if you can keep your simulator up and running smoothly, the opportunity cost of nonexistent R&D is considerable. While organizations with different training devices will gain continued value from product improvements and new technology integration, you’ll be stuck with the same training capabilities and realism until you buy a new device. Suffice it to say, you want a provider that’s in it for the long haul and can prove it.
At the end of the day, equipping your flight training program with simulators that accurately represent your fleet of aircraft probably is your number one priority. However, as you get into the weeds of your desired simulator specifications, taking a step back to evaluate the manufacturer of the device can go a long way towards protecting your investment.
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