Reliability & Maintenance / Training

Efforts Bolster Operator Training

A variety of initiatives aim to improve expertise and effectiveness.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

Chemical makers such as Eastman and BASF are continuing to fine-tune their operator training strategies. Meanwhile, research by the Center for Operator Performance (COP) and Honeywell Advanced Solutions is highlighting the importance of how knowledge itself is acquired and used.

Over the last five years, Eastman Chemical has been honing its training strategies to ensure new operations staff is up-and-running as quickly and efficiently as possible.

For example, at Kingsport, Tenn., its largest site and global headquarters, the company manages apprentice programs for chemical operator positions in conjunction with Northeast State Community College, Blountville, Tenn. These programs last 3–4 years.

Discover what human factors issues are a detriment to the chemical process  industry. Register for a free Process Safety webinar now.

“Operators are also required to complete health, safety, environment and security training, along with area-specific post-apprenticeship training and soft skills training,” notes training associate Laurey Conway.

Eastman uses proctored online tests and on-the-job certifications and re-certifications following apprentice program completion. In addition, the company monitors chemical operator job performance, particularly with regard to safety, environmental performance and quality.

“Engineering co-ops/interns and newly-hired engineers have also been participating in labs at the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM) in Kingsport. RCAM gives them hands-on instruction on process equipment. This will help them as they work to troubleshoot and improve existing processes and develop new processes. Examples of the types of labs available include control valves, centrifugal pumps and precision measuring,” adds Conway.

RCAM is an offsite teaching facility for Northeast State Community College. It provides training in process operations to personnel from industry, together with courses in these areas for the school’s own students. As part of its training portfolio RCAM recently has developed an “introduction to chemical manufacturing” course to help individuals become more familiar with chemical operations and process control.

“This course will be used for new and incumbent chemical operators, engineers and maintenance employees to gain a better understanding of chemical processing with a strong emphasis on troubleshooting,” explains Jeff Frazier, principal RCAM coordinator at Eastman.

As a part of the onboarding process for chemical operators at the company, new employees take a course called “industrial skills for new hires.” This provides them with many of the fundamentals of working in an industrial environment and seeks to close the gap between what they do know and what they need to know.

In another new initiative, this time to advance workforce skills in the realm of advanced films, Eastman is partnering with Patrick Henry Community College, the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., and the New College Institute, all based in Martinsville, Va., in the Center for Advanced Film Manufacturing (CAFM), also located there. This program covers industrial principles and advanced film manufacturing skills, and includes both hands-on manufacturing skills and classroom learning.

Launched in September 2015, the CAFM graduated its first class in May 2016. “Seven of those graduates were hired as Eastman team members at the company’s Fieldale and Patriot Centre sites,” notes Charles Fraley, human resources manager.

Three-Pronged Program

The learning and development approach adopted by BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, covers the entire work life of employees. It combines three aspects of learning — from experience, from others, and through seminars and media — in a roughly 70%/20%/10% proportion. Annual expenditure on this hovers at around €100 million ($107 million).

The company encourages all employees to take ownership of their own development and relies on twice yearly meetings with supervisors to hone individual goals and professional development. Measures typically decided upon here include job rotations, project assignments and attendance at seminars or training courses.

“It is important to us that employee development is not limited to hierarchical promotion, but includes many different aspects to foster the professional and personal competencies of our employees and to prepare them for upcoming challenges. Also we systematically monitor which new learning methods are available and reflect current trends such as digitalization in our learning concepts,” says René Stautmeister, team leader personnel development for production, engineering and laboratory at BASF.

One of the main challenges the company’s operating divisions at Ludwigshafen face relates to demographics — up to 70% of the operational managers there are due to retire over the next few years.

To deal with this, BASF has developed a process called “learning from others” that aims to ensure knowledge is systematically transferred among operational staff.

The process begins with a demographic analysis of operating staff and line managers identifying crucial knowledge carriers. A kickoff meeting then brings a person with expertise together with other relevant colleagues and the assigned successor.

“Key to this initial meeting is for the skilled veteran to provide a structured description of the knowledge relevant to the operational tasks involved. An interim report that captures the details then is presented to the plant management team,” notes Stautmeister.

Based on the report, the management team decides upon measures necessary to implement to achieve efficient knowledge transfer. To do this, the team considers questions such as: is the knowledge of the employee sufficiently documented; how can the documentation be developed to ensure that it’s complete, understandable and accessible and — if not — what recommendations to give on how to improve; which business-relevant practical knowledge of the employee should be spread around more employees; and are there means to improve processes and procedures?

Collaborative Projects

Meanwhile, the Center For Operator Performance (COP), Dayton, Ohio, an industry/university alliance, continues to pursue research into many aspects of operator training. One key area is the use of its ShadowBox technique — this enables trainees when they are presented with decision points to benefit from the knowledge of subject matter experts (Figure 1).

Last summer, for example, a pilot was conducted on a fluid catalytic cracker (FCC) in the U.S. Both experienced operators and novices were run through different scenarios.

“We got what we wanted: we identified the difference in the level of knowledge between the two groups. Interestingly, none of the senior operators got the scenarios 100% correct, so even they were missing things. So it became an opportunity for them to learn, too,” says Dave Strobhar, a founder of the COP and chief human factors engineer with Beville Engineering, also in Dayton.

For COP members as a whole, two questions emerged from the study. First was whether or not a firm that has high-fidelity simulation available would be able to use it with ShadowBox to gain more value.

“So we put in decision points in the simulators to find out. Those who had experienced the ShadowBox approach performed 28% better in terms of diagnosing the causes of faults than those that didn’t. That was a very surprising figure for us,” adds Strobhar. The particular company involved is so impressed that it’s currently incorporating ShadowBox into its existing simulator training program, while also creating a users’ guide to help other companies develop and administer their own training scenarios.

The second question to emerge from the FCC pilot was about whether a scenario must be specific to a particular unit or can be more generalized — i.e., will each different FCC unit, for example, need its own ShadowBox or will scenarios from one FCC work on every other one?

“To test this, we are working with a company that has three polyethylene units which are similar but not identical. So we are looking into this and also into how the operators of one unit tackle decision-making on the other two units. The goal is to determine the value of ShadowBox training if only carried out on a similar (not identical) unit,” notes Strobhar. The results from this study should be released shortly.

Another issue the COP is looking into is low-fidelity simulation. “Many of our members prefer high-fidelity because it does mimic the real unit, but COP research has already found that low-fidelity is far superior in some situations. This is especially true at the beginning of the training process when high-fidelity simulation simply produces too much information. So another question we are considering is, ‘How much fidelity do you really need?’”

Although this question has yet to be tackled directly, at the end of 2016 the COP began a project to examine if low-fidelity simulation plus ShadowBox can benefit both. These results are due out in summer 2017.

Another concept that has captured the COP’s interest is that of mental models and how to improve those of operators.

“We all talk about good/bad mental models but we don’t really understand how to highlight wrong mental models and then move to the right mental model faster,” explains Strobhar. “I see this first hand when I ask operators why they carried out a particular action at the console. It is clear that some are making up the answers because what they did simply doesn’t follow the chemistry. This is important because if a problem arose with the process they wouldn’t have the knowledge to know how to deal with it.”

Mental models also are being targeted as a way to get over the rule-of-thumb approach used by some novice operators. “More experienced operators have more complex processing skills and we want to better understand these. So we have a pilot project to determine if we can make an individual’s mental model explicit. If it is feasible, then we will look to funding larger efforts,” he concludes.

Vendor Effort

Honeywell Advanced Solutions, Bracknell, U.K., also sees the value of scenarios for training.

“Customers’ high-level requirements really haven’t changed at all over time; they still want people who can run a plant. What is changing is the way we are helping them,” says Martin Ross, UniSim competency suite product manager for operator training.

In Honeywell’s case, this help comes from UniSim Tutor, its knowledge capture and propagation tool.

Training starts with simple cause-and-effect scenarios, with different decision points along the way. The idea is to try to separate the thinking and doing parts and then reinforcing the thinking processes involved. “So we are taking the science of decision-making and learning and using this to drive development of products and learning processes. That is the way to get the best out of simulation,” he adds.

The company also is working with the Abnormal Situation Management (ASM) Consortium to develop a model of competency. The consortium, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014, grew out of a grassroots effort to address alarm floods. Today, it conducts research and tests, and evaluates ways to develop and advance the collective knowledge of its members. (For a recent CP article related to an ASM effort, see: “Plant Assesses Alarm Displays.”)

This work involves developing different proficiency levels to enable assessing and measuring progress against targeted outcomes. “So you can say, for example, that all the operators on a particular shift are up to a particular competency level. This is important as it gives a framework on which to develop,” he notes.

Like the COP, Ross also is immersed in the high-fidelity versus low-fidelity debate. He believes that custom simulations with accurate representations of both the process and the human/machine interface can’t be beaten. However, while high value, they are very expensive — so the question is how best to optimize their use. At the same time, the many people who don’t have access to high-fidelity simulation need help, too.

“My view here is that you need a standard generic simulation model that is relevant to the process. However, it is crucial to frame such a model — to present it — to operators in a way that makes them want to use it and avoid the ‘this isn’t my process’ argument. The best way to do this is to frame it as part of a portfolio of products that will improve their skills and knowledge. Remember that the hands-on, doing-type training is always the most important part of any program. Lectures, videos, shadowing on the job, etc., all take longer and are error-prone,” emphasizes Ross.

So, UniSim Tutor is serving to expose operators to framing and manipulation exercises to get them into the right mindset so that they know what to expect from a generic simulation. Honeywell is using the cloud to make this sort of training much more widely available, delivering structured generic training packages even to tablets (Figure 2).

“The challenge is with people who have never invested in this area and how we help them. For us it’s all about access, therefore we put it in the cloud. If you only have to go to [the] website for training, it becomes a service issue and can be scaled: it doesn’t matter if you have 5 or 500 operators to train,” he says.

Honeywell also is partnering with several other companies to develop virtual reality (VR) technology. “The key is that the VR training must be team-based and must be a realistic replication of the day-to day-work environment. My vision is that all training and learning will eventually be through VR, perhaps in 10 years’ time,” Ross concludes.


Ottewell2Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can email him at sottewell@putman.net.