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Operator Training Gains Ground

May 14, 2011
Initiatives build on established methods as well as emerging technology.

Making operators more efficient and effective remains high on the chemical industry's agenda. Testifying to that, the Center for Operator Performance (COP), an industry/academic collaboration based in Dayton, Ohio, shortly will announce two new member companies, one in refining and one in chemicals.

David Strobhar, principal human factors engineer for Beville Engineering and a driving force behind COP, cites the insights provided by the organization's work as a key reason why interest in its activities continues to grow. For instance, a project to improve operator decision-making that adapted a set of military training exercises to process control in pipelines and refineries gave valuable results.

Dedicated Facility To Operator Training
Figure 1. The Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing provides process operation training. Source: Eastman Chemical.

"Initially I thought this was too easy because it is scenario-based. It sounded like traditional 'what if?' drills. For example, 'What if I get water in my feed?' But the simple power of this approach is that the exercises are symptom-based rather than scenario-based. That simple twist gives a lot of power to the technique because you get inside an operator's thought processes. So we can stop at various points and ask operators, 'What is happening?' or 'What are you thinking?' It's very good for novices who learn how experienced operators go about approaching problems," he says.

Strobhar acted as a guinea pig on one pipeline problem and admits that he unintentionally built a trap for himself: "As a novice, I was only looking at the problem from a superficial level, not understanding that my actions had taken away options should something go wrong. Of course, in the exercise something went wrong. I then realized I needed to look not only at the problem presented but how the operation had changed and at future problems that could potentially occur."

After the project, COP-members Marathon Pipe Line and Flint Hills Resources implemented such decision-making exercises (DMX) on their sites.

Flint Hills now is extending the procedure from control room operators to engineers -- so they can understand how control room people think. The company also is using it to restore key steps that had become lost or forgotten over time.

"Another benefit of this approach is being felt by some smaller companies. New regulations from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) require pipeline operators to go on simulation training courses. But simulators are expensive and the smaller companies are hoping that by using a smaller simulation and adding in this technique, they will meet the requirements of the new regulations," Strobhar explains.

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In fact, one of COP's big selling points is that many of its projects help maximize operator performance on simulators. "We are seeing quite a lot of pushback from simulators because they are very expensive and need to be used properly to get the very best results. But one big issue is how to correlate hours in a simulator with improved performance -- in the way that the military do. For example, if a big improvement in performance comes after six hours in a simulator, what is the benefit in doing 7–10 hours? So the question is how to maximize performance using the tool."

Quantifying whether training has been successful also is a challenge. To this end, COP currently is considering funding a project that will evaluate operators at one refinery who have used DMX against operators at a different refinery who have not. "We will try to evaluate differences in the speed and accuracy of decision-making by the two sets of operators and we hope that the data will speak for itself," notes Strobhar.

COP's member companies already are funding a project to investigate why one crew may get better performance from a plant's distributed control system (DCS) than another crew. Quantifying this, if possible, should enable highlighting the factors involved. "Some new data-mining software is being applied that correlates operator performance with DCS performance. We hope to be able to say that training leads to a more stable process."

In all of COP's activities, the drive is to provide an effective feedback loop from current performance to the training system to see if training is delivering desired results. "That loop is currently missing in a lot of training. For example, we often see that well-liked training has little or no effect on operator performance. Without the feedback loop, we can never get over this."

At Eastman Chemical Company, Kingsport, Tenn., giving operators the knowledge and skills needed requires the most training of any position at the company.

"Our operator apprentice program and structured training program for these positions are 3–4 years in length," says Laurey Conway, an Eastman training associate. Operators also must complete health, safety, environment and security training, along with area-specific post-apprenticeship and soft skills training.

Current Research On Operator Training
Figure 2. Evolutionary training methods may come from study of today's operators. Source: ABB.

As part of its drive for cost-effectiveness, Eastman since 2003 has had Northeast State Community College, Blountville, Tenn., run the operator apprentice program. Last year, the school took over the maintenance apprentice program. Sessions take place at the school's Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing, which opened in the Fall of 2009 (Figure 1).

"We have partnered with Northeast State in the development of a chemical process operator training curriculum. This development work is part of the overall advanced manufacturing partnership (AMP) project, which is funded under an agreement with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development grant through Eastman Chemical Company's Project Reinvest Initiative," adds Conway.

To find out if the operator apprentice and structured training programs are doing their jobs, Eastman uses proctored online tests and on-the-job certifications and recertifications. The company also monitors operator job performance, particularly with regard to safety, the environment and quality.

Conway notes the company also is exploring new ways to capture the skills and knowledge of its senior operating staff -- up to 200 of whom are expected to retire annually through 2015.

Meanwhile, in early April, Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS), Phoenix, Ariz., announced an expansion of its in-house engineering training and development programs to help deliver qualified talent for its industrial automation business.

To contend with a maturing workforce and fewer students worldwide taking science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses each year, Honeywell is creating programs to develop the engineering talent of the future, including plant operators, maintenance technicians, implementation engineers, system administrators and managers.

"The shortage of engineering skills is an industry-wide challenge," stresses HPS president Norm Gilsdorf. "Experienced engineers are retiring, leaving behind a void that is not being sufficiently filled by newly qualified talent. With a globally expanding business like HPS, the problem is magnified. Honeywell needs more engineers. For us to find them we have had to develop a number of programs, which are not only designed to deliver immediate results but to also foster interest and desire in STEM careers for future generations."

Central to such programs is simulation. "Simulation allows students to make mistakes and training allows you to accelerate knowledge transfer," says Pete Henderson, London, Ont.-based product manager for HPS' simulation business.

Customers typically report that panel operators trained using simulators can work independently in one year instead of the three years of actual plant operation experience this usually takes.

"The reason is that you don't have to wait for these training scenarios to evolve in the control room. Simulators capture a lifetime of experiences, which are then easily transferred to new operators within controlled, repeatable curriculum in a fraction of the time. Operator confidence improves with acquired knowledge and skills, allowing them to respond to changing conditions quickly, instinctively, inherently and reflexively. This doesn't mean that you don't want the operator to think about what is happening -- but this newly acquired knowledge and familiarization frees the operator from having to figure out what is going on in the heat of the moment."

Henderson believes training aids such as animations, podcasts and dynamic process simulations that interactively engage the student are excellent because experiential (hands-on) learning allows the person to relate simple operations with future process outcomes of inter-related variables. Such practical skills dynamically reinforce fundamental knowledge transferred during traditional classroom lectures, resulting in the greatest long-term knowledge retention.

"In simulation, seeing relationships helps form a strong basis for skills development that we encounter during process plant procedures. Students also learn through practice, repetition (like learning how to play a piano), familiarization and orientation. In this way, operators begin to understand how their actions, commands, set points and procedures relate to the plant's operations."

3D Simulation For Operator Training
Figure 3. Interactive technology targets both younger and more experienced operations staff. Source: Invensys Operations Management.

To measure training's success, pre-configured exercises can monitor key performance indicators, alarms, events and student response. The same exercises also assess the student's ability to keep the plant within an operating window -- i.e., performance criteria. Operators are graded on how they perform, for example, with pump trips. "We monitor how they respond and react. It might be that they react inappropriately and have to repeat the training. With the help of the coach, you can make sure that particular operators get exactly the right training to tackle the weaknesses that they have," says Henderson.

To capture what is in operators' heads, HPS has created specialized groups called communities of practice. Facilitated by virtual environments such as online forums, wikis and podcasts, these communities enable people to contribute information and knowledge. Each community is held together by common goals and a desire to share experiences, insights and best practices related to the particular topic or discipline. For example, a community dedicated to advanced process control employs peer-to-peer webinars, posts project summaries and documents successes to help capture industry knowledge and drive member proficiency.

This type of collaboration allows HPS to gather valuable experience-based knowledge that is difficult to transfer or communicate otherwise -- and thus to retain intellectual capital, promote global standardization and create a sustainable platform for innovation.

For its part, Eastman doesn't rely on online sites like YouTube or podcasting for training. "A fairly recent survey of some of our current apprentices and recent apprentice graduates revealed that they did not want to be trained to be a chemical operator using these techniques. However, we will continue to explore new technologies for selected training activities," notes Conway.

Martin Olausson, principal scientist, corporate research, for ABB, Zurich, Switz., believes the growing popularity of devices like iPhones, iPads and Kinect will lead to different interfaces to boost efficiency. Speaking about tomorrow's operators at ABB Automation and Power World held in Orlando, Fla., in late April, he said: "They are much more used to digital devices like this… They will not accept anything less than what they have at home. They demand more from us."

So, ABB may incorporate such technologies as eye tracking, video game software, natural user interfaces and information visualization into industrial operator interfaces. "Digital natives will be the plant personnel of tomorrow," he stressed.

ABB also is working on more evolutionary changes that will help today's operators do their jobs more effectively (Figure 2). Its researchers spend several days with end users, observing them, asking questions and taking notes about what they see. They then analyze what they've seen, looking also to see if there are geographic differences in behavior. The team develops concepts and prototypes and takes them back to the users. "If it's not better, then we never release it. When it's good, it's handed over to R&D," Olausson explains. For more, see: www.ControlGlobal.com/articles/2011/ABB2011_APW9.html.

Meanwhile, Invensys Operations Management (IOM), London, U.K., is collaborating with ENI Refining and Marketing, Genoa, Italy, to develop virtual reality training systems.

The two companies are piloting the SimSci-Esscor EYESIM training kiosk, which offers immersive 3D simulation, at ENI's Gela refinery in Sicily. If successful, kiosks will be rolled out to other ENI facilities around the globe.

EYESIM enables operators and engineers to see and safely interact with the plant and the processes they control. Relying on gaming and other skill sets most familiar to younger employees, EYESIM is designed to appeal to both new and veteran staff (Figure 3).

"Using proven SimSci-Esscor simulation software integrated with a games console controller and 3D navigation, trainees and plant personnel can learn process operations and procedures from an interactive tutorial. They can also score their performance with unrestricted access to training kiosks that offer a fully lifelike virtual plant," says Maurizio Rovaglio, IOM's head of innovation and emerging technologies.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's  Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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