Knowledge Transfer: Plants Seek The Right Recipe For Seasoning

Efforts aim to more effectively gather and pass along insights of veteran personnel

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Capturing knowledge that seasoned staff take for granted and transferring it effectively to new hires and inexperienced personnel remain urgent and ongoing challenges for the chemical industry. Fortunately, advances in technology and training are simplifying the tasks and boosting success, as the experiences of Rockwell Automation, the Center for Operator Performance (COP), Nova Chemicals and BASF show.

“According to a Deloitte study, by 2025, two million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled across the United States. So, as the workforce retires, it will become harder to transfer tribal knowledge without the proper technology and training services in place. This increases process variation and can potentially reduce asset utilization,” cautions Gordon Bordelon, global chemical industry technical consultant, Rockwell Automation, Greenville, S.C.

The average age of workers in U.S. manufacturing is 57.2 years and 22% of these workers will retire in the next six to eight years — making the workforce skills shortage even more critical, adds Brian Fortney, Mayfield Heights, Ohio-based global business manager, training services for Rockwell Automation. “For most chemical companies, they will have new operators coming into the plant, and they must figure out the best and most efficient ways to train them and transfer knowledge while maintaining safety — a key element in chemical plants,” he stresses.

One of the main challenges involves capturing key insights on the many chemical operations that traditionally — and in many cases still — lack full automation, says Bordelon.

Aspects typically not automated include startup and shutdown procedures, routine maintenance tasks, management of standard operating procedures (SOPs), and sample and quality checks, among others. Lack of automation, he notes, means there’s no standard and efficient way to capture the knowledge from the operators performing these tasks, especially when they retire (Figure 1).

In response, Rockwell Automation is deploying new technologies to help chemical customers with their knowledge transfer. For example, its distributed control system contains tools such as eProcedures that allow plant operators to capture SOPs in an electronic, automated, structured and standardized way. This provides repeatable instructions, making it easier for new operators to learn systems and procedures. It enables tracking manual operations for continuous improvement initiatives and also helps reduce human errors, improve product quality and consistency, and increase overall plant efficiencies.

“We worked with one specialty chemical paint producer to deploy a batch solution, standardized on eProcedures, to help standardize SOPs and drive more consistent operations for manual operations,” notes Bordelon.

The company also aids chemical makers in getting more from traditional training methods. For instance, its “train-the-trainer” technique helps to formalize knowledge transfer by using system and equipment subject matter experts to train new employees and the crews they work with on a regular basis. “This helps ensure knowledge is transferred and spread across multiple people versus just one person,” says Fortney.

Most chemical companies run lean, so having a baseline and documented standard process for knowledge transfer is essential, he notes. However, determining loss of tribal knowledge can be difficult. “Chemical companies measure success through asset utilization and fewer operator-induced incidents and safety events. Overall, with a standard, formal training process, the plant should experience less human-induced operating issues and optimized performance,” adds Bordelon.

The ongoing advance of analytics and machine learning should help plug holes in knowhow. “… If there are knowledge gaps or changes, the equipment will be able to pick up the slack through applied, scalable analytics and trending,” he believes.

Collaborative Efforts

The formation in 2007 of the Center for Operator Performance (COP), Dayton, Ohio, reflected an appreciation by the companies involved of the need to train operators faster and retain the knowledge about to walk out the door.

“However,” notes Dave Strobhar, chief human factors engineer, Beville Engineering, Dayton, Ohio, and a leading figure within the group, “COP projects have since highlighted that the knowledge capture of retiring employees is not easy and often not sufficient for use.”

For example, one project on mental models revealed that operators can have the necessary knowledge but fail to retrieve it when needed. So knowledge alone is insufficient; it must be structured for ease of access and application.

“Dr Gary Klein [a pioneer of cognitive psychology] has termed this inert knowledge. It existed, but it wasn’t put to use. This is consistent with other research by Klein that highlights the need for information to be in context to be useful. Data alone is insufficient,” explains Strobhar.

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