Training Simulators Make Real Difference

Operators gain proficiency faster and safely experience abnormal situations

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Operator training simulator (OTS) technology is becomingly increasingly important in the drive to maximize personnel, project and process performance, as the experiences of vendors including Emerson Process Management, Schneider Electric and Honeywell Process Solutions show.

A major refinery in Texas typifies what OTS can deliver. The site, which had converted key process areas to Emerson Process Management’s PlantWeb architecture featuring the DeltaV distributed control system (DCS), used OTS to prepare employees with the knowledge of how to get the greatest performance and cost benefits from its new system.

Emerson’s educational services experts delivered a hands-on, process-specific training program; simulations exposed operators to what they would experience in their actual control room and allowed them to practice and respond to process upsets. This enabled the operators to gain confidence and experience in an offline, no-risk environment prior to actual plant operation.

The refinery reported the training program exceeded all its expectations and was crucial to improving operational readiness and results. The OTS is an integral part of plant life now, providing training for new operators and refresher training and practice for experienced ones in handling potential incidents.

Within DeltaV’s “simulate” environment, operators get to use exactly the same configurations they would use in a real system. “This is very unusual in the market as most other DCS systems have to be used in an offline environment and require modification, translation, etc.,” notes Mark O’Rosky, OTS engineering manager, process systems and solutions, Round Rock, Texas.

Also unusual, he says, is Emerson’s use of an open environment for process simulation; pretty much any modeling software package — indeed any software with an OPC interface — can talk with DeltaV.

The trainer environment is another differentiator, he adds. Many other DCS companies have process simulation packages that include, for example, instructor function pieces for grading/scoring scenarios and student monitoring; so, a user must create a simulation package linked to the vendor’s own software. “We draw a different boundary at Emerson. We have created a trainer environment so you can do scenarios/grading, etc. within the DCS environment… We can use anybody’s process simulation package — and keep the instructor/student functionality in the DCS environment. So the training environment is in the same DCS for both the trainer and the student, i.e., they use the same screen [Figure 1]. That’s a very big thing for us,” adds O’Rosky.

The Value Of Virtualization

Virtualization, which has become increasingly popular for automation projects (see: “Chemical Makers Embrace Virtualization”), also can impact training. For example, a company might have difficulty justifying an OTS for just one small gas plant. However, if it has four or five similar plants, a single trainer hosted in central engineering can support all the units; operators at any facility can access it simply by logging in.

Large sites also can benefit. For instance, in the past a chemical complex with numerous processing units might have had a training system for each. However, with a virtualized training system, you can train operators on any unit individually or on any combination of units. This gives users huge flexibility in terms of training.

“It means that you can achieve in a morning and an afternoon what previously could have taken a week. And utilization of the trainer has gone right up, too. For example, at one site a chemical company is closing in on 3,000 hours of operator training with the simulator being used at all hours, including evenings and weekends,” notes O’Rosky.

This also is helping to tackle the demographic challenge posed by the industry’s aging workforce (see: “Plants Grapple with Graying Staff”). Emerson’s own research shows that training an operator to the appropriate level can take 6–7 years. Simulation speeds this up substantially, it says.

A Fertile Approach

Fauji Fertilizer Company (FFC) provides another example of how OTS can improve operator performance — and even drive business expansion. FFC has been manufacturing fertilizer products since 1982 at its site at Goth Machhi, Pakistan. When the company decided to commission a new DCS at the oldest of its original plants, it also was keen to add an OTS that could serve as the basis for a plant-wide training protocol. FFC’s aims for the OTS were quite specific: decrease the risk of major operational incidents; reduce startup and shutdown times; increase the plant’s onstream time; and improve response to emergencies.

FFC also wanted the OTS to help with broader personnel challenges. Like many chemical companies, it must contend with the looming retirement of numerous experienced personnel. The company also faced another challenge common to many chemical manufacturers — how to expose new hires to critical and emergency scenarios that happen only infrequently.

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