Operator training simulators (OTSs) have been around the chemical industry for decades and now represent mature technology. However, because of global trends and competitive pressures, the need to improve the skills, knowledge and behavior of operations staff never has been greater. Five factors are driving more and more chemical makers to invest in these tools:
1. Retirement of veteran operators;
2. The impact of human error;
3. The quest for faster startups;
4. Improved OTS effectiveness; and
5. A refocus on training objectives.
So, let's look at each of these factors and what's required to successfully address them.
RETIREMENT OF VETERAN OPERATORS
Process operator performance is important during the commissioning, operations and extension phases of a plant's lifecycle. However, many chemical manufacturers worldwide expect most of their experienced operators to retire before 2020. So, the companies risk losing a lot of knowledge and know-how unless they take steps to capture it.
Mentoring certainly is valuable but poses a risk of passing on bad, as well as good, habits. Also, the lessons learned this way don't necessarily reflect best practices.
Using a training simulator program to capture the skills of veteran operators before they retire solves some of the problem of building the expertise of new and less-seasoned operators. One chemical industry insider comments that with "industry simulation technology, we have been able to increase the overall knowledge base of current operators and provide broader scenario training to future employees. We have had about 40% of our operators go through the testing so far and have received nothing but positive comments. Some want to go through the training as often as possible instead of the regular 18-month training cycle."
Critical to success: The best way to capture experienced operators' knowledge is to use a documented approach to OTS design and deployment. One technique is to facilitate a series of workshops with a cross-functional team representing operations, engineering and training. The workshop leader writes a statement that communicates the workshop's aim, e.g., "Identify, define and document the top 20 learning outcomes from the OTS and specify the OTS requirements necessary to deliver the learning outcomes." A learning outcome might be, for example: "Trainee is able to demonstrate basic process understanding." Part of this process should involve identifying the training and measurement mechanism — for instance, if, after an exercise, the trainee can identify a key piece of process equipment and describe its function in relation to the overall plant purpose, then the learning objective has been achieved.
The first workshop should define program components. Further workshops then should pinpoint program materials within the framework of a workbook, i.e., a document that describes the training exercises or lessons that will be delivered to the intended trainee pool. Each workshop should take the form of a series of facilitated interviews between the workbook designer and subject matter experts (SMEs), who typically are experienced operators, process engineers and training professionals. The SMEs should work with the designer during the workshop to specify the detailed content of the training exercises based on their specific knowledge and experiences.
The desired outcome from this process is that the OTS is scoped based on the collective knowledge and experience of the people close to day-to-day plant operations and the workbook that's generated incorporates best practices (Figure 1).
THE IMPACT OF HUMAN ERROR
Research from the Abnormal Situation Management Consortium indicates U.S. chemical plants lose more than $20 billion annually from abnormal situations, with $8 billion due to human error and insufficient knowledge. Engineering measures, such as control and safety systems, are necessary to reduce risk but aren't sufficient protection. Simulator-based training can help manage that risk. A structured approach accelerates learning and helps maintain abilities through refresher training. A typical program includes:
Basic training for new operators —
• Process/control familiarization, 1 week;
• Initial startup and shutdown, 1 week;
• Incident avoidance, 1 week, 10 lessons; and
• Incident recovery, 1 week, 10 lessons;
Annual refresher training between turnarounds —
• Incident avoidance, 1 week, 10 lessons; and
• Incident recovery, 1 week, 10 lessons.
The exercise content is produced through the facilitated workshops. One format that's proven successful divides each lesson into three sessions: