Operator Training Gains Ground

Initiatives build on established methods as well as emerging technology.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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"The shortage of engineering skills is an industry-wide challenge," stresses HPS president Norm Gilsdorf. "Experienced engineers are retiring, leaving behind a void that is not being sufficiently filled by newly qualified talent. With a globally expanding business like HPS, the problem is magnified. Honeywell needs more engineers. For us to find them we have had to develop a number of programs, which are not only designed to deliver immediate results but to also foster interest and desire in STEM careers for future generations."

Central to such programs is simulation. "Simulation allows students to make mistakes and training allows you to accelerate knowledge transfer," says Pete Henderson, London, Ont.-based product manager for HPS' simulation business.

Customers typically report that panel operators trained using simulators can work independently in one year instead of the three years of actual plant operation experience this usually takes.

"The reason is that you don't have to wait for these training scenarios to evolve in the control room. Simulators capture a lifetime of experiences, which are then easily transferred to new operators within controlled, repeatable curriculum in a fraction of the time. Operator confidence improves with acquired knowledge and skills, allowing them to respond to changing conditions quickly, instinctively, inherently and reflexively. This doesn't mean that you don't want the operator to think about what is happening -- but this newly acquired knowledge and familiarization frees the operator from having to figure out what is going on in the heat of the moment."

Henderson believes training aids such as animations, podcasts and dynamic process simulations that interactively engage the student are excellent because experiential (hands-on) learning allows the person to relate simple operations with future process outcomes of inter-related variables. Such practical skills dynamically reinforce fundamental knowledge transferred during traditional classroom lectures, resulting in the greatest long-term knowledge retention.

"In simulation, seeing relationships helps form a strong basis for skills development that we encounter during process plant procedures. Students also learn through practice, repetition (like learning how to play a piano), familiarization and orientation. In this way, operators begin to understand how their actions, commands, set points and procedures relate to the plant's operations."

To measure training's success, pre-configured exercises can monitor key performance indicators, alarms, events and student response. The same exercises also assess the student's ability to keep the plant within an operating window -- i.e., performance criteria. Operators are graded on how they perform, for example, with pump trips. "We monitor how they respond and react. It might be that they react inappropriately and have to repeat the training. With the help of the coach, you can make sure that particular operators get exactly the right training to tackle the weaknesses that they have," says Henderson.

To capture what is in operators' heads, HPS has created specialized groups called communities of practice. Facilitated by virtual environments such as online forums, wikis and podcasts, these communities enable people to contribute information and knowledge. Each community is held together by common goals and a desire to share experiences, insights and best practices related to the particular topic or discipline. For example, a community dedicated to advanced process control employs peer-to-peer webinars, posts project summaries and documents successes to help capture industry knowledge and drive member proficiency.

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