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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The chemical industry has used OTSs for about 30 years, so plenty of systems are deployed. Discussions with companies that have installed simulators have identified key areas for improving OTS effectiveness. The feedback typically doesn't focus on the quality of the underlying process models or the fidelity of the control and logic emulations. Instead, key inputs received by Honeywell during customer interviews mainly center on using the simulator to address weaknesses in current training methods.

Four particular shortcomings cited are:

1. Limited on-the-job performance measurement —
• Measurement often doesn't happen or only is considered after an incident has occurred.
• Performance measures tend to be informal, subjective and biased, and don't relate to specific competencies.
2. Inadequate feedback to operators on performance relative to competencies —
• Competency-related on-the-job feedback rarely is given.
• Feedback during training often lacks structure and isn't grounded in specific competencies.
3. Limited value of evaluations during training —
• Results are based on process outcomes without a clear relationship to specific competencies.
4. Lack of focus on a comprehensive set of competencies —
• At least 50% of the customers interviewed weren't using a competency model for training.

It's possible to address each of these issues in the training environment. However, doing so requires incorporating the OTS within a structured framework.

Critical to success: A company must consider a variety of factors, such as:

• Mapping performance measures to core operator competencies;
• Focusing on soft skills and related competencies, e.g., behaviors;
• Defining a methodology to be used during training;
• Developing a work process to provide operators with feedback on their performance during training; and
• Establishing a relationship between the measures and competencies that underlie effective performance.

Including these success factors within a structured program is a scalable task and depends upon the facilities available within the given organization. At the basic level, this involves creating a simple training plan that details the skills, competencies and behaviors and maps them to behavioral indicators and training exercises. Table 1 illustrates an example competency: "Respond to abnormal situations." It is mapped to five behavioral indicators and three training activities. Each activity has an associated assessment score that contributes to the total score the trainee achieves for the exercise, which, in turn, determines the trainee's level of proficiency in the associated competency.

Keeping a record of each trainee's progress, along with completed copies of the trainee workbook is a good idea. Most major OTS solutions offer electronic reporting facilities that instructors and training managers can use to monitor trainee progress. Maintaining a session checklist for each exercise is a simple, practical tool for providing consistent training and trainee feedback. At the most sophisticated level, the training is deployed within an enterprise-wide learning management system. Such systems are becoming increasingly common, and many support integration with OTS software so that results and progress can be held in a central repository.

Applying dynamic process simulation to the problem of operator training has been a significant achievement. Advances in modelling technology and the increasing power of computers enable accurate simulation of almost any unit operation and largely end any size restrictions on model scope. However, all this technology is only a means to an end. What's really important is having trained, competent operators who can run processes  safely, efficiently and profitably in an environmentally conscious and sustainable way. To achieve these goals, it's critical to place operator requirements at the heart of any project. This is how OTS was specified 30 years ago because computing power was so limited that each piece of the model had to deliver training value. The model was built to satisfy a clearly defined training need.

Critical to success: Consider the training objectives first and then decide the scope and fidelity of the process and control modelling needed to achieve those objectives. Table 2 covers some best-practice areas.

An OTS should satisfy both the operators' and company's needs. Keeping in mind the five factors we've covered will set up the project for success. Sustaining OTS benefits is best achieved by understanding the core competencies required and how these can map to training activities and performance feedback mechanisms.

MARTIN ROSS is Bracknell, U.K.-based global product manager for UniSim Solutions for Honeywell Process Solutions. E-mail him at
1. Ayral, T. and De Jonge, P., "Operator Training Simulators for Brownfield Process Units Offer Many Benefits," Hydrocarbon Processing, p. 36, February 2013.
2. Fiske, T., "Uses and Benefits of Dynamic Simulation for Operator Training Systems," ARC Insights, August 2007.

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