Five Proven Methods to Boost Operator Competency with Simulator Training

Are you worried about operator competency? The Abnormal Situations Management Consortium says that of the $20 billion that industrial plants lose every year, 40% is attributable to human error. Focusing on the five proven methods will ensure best practice for your plant.
By Martin Ross August 10, 2012

At a time when a highly specialized and experienced workforce is retiring and companies are ushering in a new generation of operators, process industries are facing challenges to develop and sustain operator competency. In addition, all facilities face the pressures of increasing government regulations to maintain safe, environmentally compliant operations while competing to be profitable in the global marketplace.

Technologies are available to train new operators, including simulators.People are key assets of operating companies. They operate the plant on a day-to-day basis and are tasked to ensure safe, compliant, and profitable production. It is increasingly important to attract, retain, and motivate these operators from a shrinking resource pool of experience and competence. Key skills, knowledge, and experience walk out the door when long-tenured operators retire, and managers are concerned that the newer generation of operators is ill-prepared to replace them. In fact, an estimated 50% of employees in the oil and gas industry will retire in the next 10 years. Today, fewer operators are managing complex process operations with a broader scope of responsibility than in the past. The nearly universal introduction of advanced and supervisory control schemes coupled with extended time between turnarounds for most modern process technologies means fewer operators have personal experience with abnormal, infrequent, or unusual process operations that could happen in real time, at any time.

To combat these challenges, more and more companies are turning to operator training simulators (OTS). An OTS is fast becoming a standard deliverable in capital projects within process industries, particularly those that involve new process or control infrastructure, either as a new build, retrofit, or expansion. For some companies it is becoming standard practice to employ an OTS across the corporation either through localized or corporate-sponsored training investments.

A simulator can enable a new operator to interact with situations and upsets that may be very rare in daily experiencesHowever, the OTS on its own will not deliver return on investment without understanding how the system fits into a training program. These training programs are commonly referred to as operator competency programs, where competency refers to the possession of the required skill, knowledge, qualification, or know-how expected of a process industry operator. As the focus turns to an integrated training program to develop, maintain, and improve operator competency, five proven methods are worth emphasizing to help operating companies get the most out of existing assets when planning a new investment in OTS. The methods are motivated by research, knowledge, experience, and insight from academic research, process industry operating companies, industrial consortia, and simulation professionals and users.

1. Practice makes perfect

A training simulator is an ideal place to practice as it provides a venue for performing unfamiliar process and control tasks from the safety of the classroom. Mistakes can be made and lessons can be learned without any real-life consequences. The key here is to practice the procedures often and provide refresher training at regular intervals. Drill and practice (D&P) training has been the traditional method of training in process industries. For the newer generation of operators who perceive D&P type training as lackluster, the use of an OTS grants a reprieve as a learning experience that provides the feeling of hands-on, experimental, and immersive engagement with the system. This engagement with the process is aligned with modern learning techniques designed to improve knowledge retention. Practice makes perfect, so activities with the OTS should include operations such as start-up and shutdown ahead of time, and work through response to infrequent but high-impact abnormal situations based on best practice procedures. Effective best practice training programs make time for operators to run through the routines on a regular basis, so it is advisable not to allow too much time to elapse between refresher training.

2. Share experiences

An OTS is, by design, an ideal medium for capturing experience and sharing knowledge. Procedures developed by an operator or a team on a shift in response to a real-world event can be shared and practiced by the entire team, allowing more experience and knowledge to be applied to the process. This iteration of the process among a range of experts and users is an effective way to communicate new learning and experience across the team and is a well-known technique for rapid deployment of innovations in many business areas. The sooner new learning is shared and available to all, the higher the value of the OTS asset within the business process.

Once a simulation model is formulated, it is critical to maintain it so that it continues to provide an accurate representation of the process.3. Benchmark performance

In every control room, a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) will have been identified which are consistently monitored by the operators. These KPIs are typically trended on the operator console and are the critical process parameters that indicate safe and profitable operation of the plant. For every infrequent operation, an experienced operator will have a corresponding trend or group display ready at hand to monitor the progression of the operation.

A good OTS offers a feature that allows continuous recording of these KPIs during an exercise. Deviations from acceptable limits can be highlighted, often in terms of a score or other aggregate metric that provides an operator scorecard at the end of each exercise. The performance of an operator can then be assessed against a predefined benchmark score to aid in identifying further and ongoing training needs. For example, a one-day training session might see an operator perform well against a benchmark on three out of four exercises. For the exercise requiring improvement, a recommendation for improving performance could be repeating the exercise or receiving one-on-one coaching. Maintaining records of performance against a benchmark helps provide evidence of continuous improvement. For this type of benchmarking to be successful, it is important that the business has a strong culture of performance management so that scorecards can be linked to the performance management system deployed by the organization.

4. Maintain consistency

Effective OTS products will provide a mechanism for enabling consistent training through the use of preconfigured or end-user-configured training features. The most common of these is the scenario feature which allows a preconfigured sequence of process events to unfold where the operator is expected to take action. This feature is typically used for training with experienced operators responding to either an instrument or equipment failure, and allows the instructor to prepare a library of preconfigured training activities in advance. Planning and configuring this activity within the OTS tool takes up-front effort, but the reward is that the scenario becomes an asset that can be reused to provide the D&P training mentioned in method one. There is no substitute for instructor-led training, but having a standardized training curriculum based on reviewed and approved material is the most effective method for iterating towards optimum training performance.

5. Retain reality

The most important aspect of an OTS is ensuring that it is designed to achieve the training and competency goals defined by the business. These goals should be scalable to budget; however, they generally share some basic common-sense principles. The first is to establish a competency model for the scope of roles and responsibilities that are subject to training. The competency model needs to identify the part that the training simulator will play within the overall training and competency activity of the organization. This competency model also needs to indicate the important functional requirements for the OTS such as scope, process model fidelity, operator console fidelity, and so on.

Once these functional requirements have been established and provided, it is important to keep the model under review with the operational teams and plant or corporate management. The competency model should be evaluated regularly for “fit for purpose.” The operator training simulator itself should also be tested at regular intervals for fit for purpose. The reality is that the OTS will suffer from a slow reduction in realism if it is not part of a routine maintenance program, diminishing its usefulness. This is the creeping curse that one day culminates in the OTS losing credibility with its users because it is not adequately satisfying the need to represent the real plant at an appropriate level of fidelity in terms of scope, model, and console. A critical success factor here is building a program around the competency model and embedding the use of the OTS with its management and maintenance into the company performance management system with the full and ongoing support of executive management.

Moving forward with an OTS

Operator training simulators have become a recognized best practice by operating companies for both new and existing facilities, used to prepare their operational workforce to maintain safe, environmentally compliant, and profitable operations. An OTS can also help mitigate current challenges affecting process industries globally, such as workforce readiness and technological advances offering the prospect of bigger scopes, higher fidelity, faster delivery, and extension into the field with 3D-based solutions. Nonetheless, these five proven methods continue to manifest themselves. The basic principles of identification of the training need, followed by development of a formalized instructor-led program that allows people to practice, share, and innovate in a safe, consistent, and realistic way, with appropriate use of the core functionalities of an OTS provide the significant proportion of the benefits to the process industries.

Martin Ross is the marketing manager for Honeywell Process Solutions’ UniSim product family.


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