Improve Operator Training

Make the most of simulators by understanding five key factors for success.

By Martin Ross, Honeywell Process Solutions

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1. Learning. The trainee reads appropriate background material, and also may need to answer a series of questions relating to the reading material.
2. Application. The trainee uses the OTS to gain practical experience of the process, and will be guided through the appropriate procedures.
3. Assessment. The trainee reviews what has been learned in the learning and application sessions. The instructor then has the trainee perform various activities and answer questions, and discusses the whole lesson.

Critical to success: A common misconception is that an OTS is a form of video game, not a serious business tool. Some psychological concepts used in gaming can motivate and stimulate use of an OTS — particularly by younger trainees familiar with modern interactive teaching methods. These proven concepts include:

• Reward. "You have demonstrated the necessary knowledge, behavior and skills to progress from trainee to panel operator."
• Status. "You now are ready to be challenged by more-complex training scenarios."
• Achievement. "You successfully managed a complete plant shutdown with no unexpected trips."
• Self-expression. "You can contribute to the design of new exercises."
• Competition. "You are progressing to a higher level of attainment."
• Altruism. "You can share your expert knowledge with others."


However, these aspects only work in a business context if the individuals involved perceive the underlying system as relevant. This has two key implications. Firstly for the OTS design, involving the user community for workbook generation ensures users become stakeholders rather than just training services consumers. Secondly, organizations must keep the simulator a close match to the actual plant. Once the actual plant deviates from the simulator, trainees challenge the OTS's relevance and the training value quickly erodes. A simulator-maintenance best practice is to have a mechanism that allows OTS stakeholders to review all plant modifications to determine if an update is needed. Updates then can be executed annually. A common trap to avoid here is considering that modifications are minor and can be explained to the trainee either during or before the session. While experienced operators may be able to cope with significant differences, new trainees may not be able to put even small ones into context — significantly decreasing training effectiveness. Senior managers should seek regular feedback from stakeholders on the OTS's ongoing relevance.

THE QUEST FOR FASTER STARTUPS
For 30 years, the primary driver for investing in an OTS was to prepare operators for the startup of a new unit. This remains one of the primary drivers today. The economics are compelling: the loss of revenue due to delayed production and the gain in revenue due to early production both can be massive [1]. Figure 2, which includes data from a Finnish chemical company covering startups without an OTS (1997 and 2002) and with an OTS (2007), shows how the training paid off in a faster startup. Engineers involved with these projects commented: "We developed successful and consistent training programs to keep our employees up-to-date on the plant — something they demanded once they experienced the real-world scenarios. Our operators were excited about the process and took an active role in learning to help make this plant as profitable as possible."

With training came smoother, quicker startup. There are other examples; a UK-based chemicals manufacturer reported similar benefits, including saving eight days during initial startup followed by a day saved during additional startups following turnarounds [2].

Critical to success: Plant startup is usually an infrequent activity. Many years could pass between the initial startup and the next turnaround. Simulators enable practicing and perfecting startup and other infrequent procedures. From the point of view of procedural training, accurate and consistent execution of unit procedures is fundamental to safe and reliable operation. The training coursework should include and reference the latest versions of any relevant procedures. If the simulator hasn't been updated, the instructor must note this within the training session. Particular attention should be placed on training for procedures or activities that aren't part of the standard operator duties, and relevant documents within the workbook materials should be referenced. Validating a trainee's ability to identify when a standard procedure should be deployed, where to find the procedural information, and compliance to the procedure are key benefits of using an OTS.