Lessons learned, success in simulation

A firsthand review of a successful operator training simulator program, with some thoughts for avoiding bumps if you try the same approach.

By Donald M. Brooks November 22, 2011

As demonstrated by a recent Suncor Energy project, simulation saves time and money during plant start-up and ensures systems function effectively when abnormal situations arise. In addition, simulation is well suited for validation of plant design, verification of control configurations, and testing “what-if” scenarios by engineers and operators.

These conclusions grew out of Suncor Energy’s successful use of dynamic simulation within its Alberta, Canada, oil sands operations. This article will discuss best practices for simulator programs and provides key lessons learned while carrying out project design, testing, and implementation of a Honeywell UniSim platform.

Suncor Energy, Inc. is an integrated energy company based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Its primary operations include oil production, natural gas, refining, and renewable energy. In 1967, Suncor pioneered commercial development of Canada’s oil sands, one of the largest petroleum resource basins in the world. In 2010, Suncor completed its merger with Petro-Canada, which was acquired in 2009.

In its working processing site near Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Suncor recovers bitumen from oil sands and upgrades it to refinery-ready feedstock and diesel fuel. Oil sand is a mixture of bitumen, sand, and water, which must be mined or heated underground before it can be processed. Suncor’s oil sands business recovers bitumen through surface mining and steam injection technologies and upgrades it into crude oil products. Approximately 80% of Canada’s oil sands are too deep to mine and must be tapped using in situ production. This method increases bitumen supply while reducing costs and impact on the environment.

At its MacKay River and FireBag operations, Suncor uses a steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) process as part of its in situ operation. SAGD is an enhanced oil recovery technology for producing heavy crude oil and bitumen. It uses an advanced form of steam stimulation in which two parallel horizontal wells are drilled into the oil reservoir, offset vertically by a few meters. Low-pressure steam is continuously injected into the upper wellbore to heat the oil and reduce its viscosity, causing the heated oil to drain into the lower wellbore, where it is pumped out.

Operational challenges

In today’s world of process control systems, individuals controlling valuable plant assets should have the training and equipment needed to do their jobs effectively. An operator in any kind of process plant cannot afford to make mistakes, which can be costly and potentially life threatening.

Plant operators continuously check the operation of equipment to make sure all process systems are running properly. They often make adjustments to keep the variables of processes within acceptable ranges, and constantly check pressures, flows, and temperatures. Operators also identify potential and actual problems and quickly perform corrective action to minimize the effects.

Despite the demands of their job, many young operators have never experienced a plant turnaround or critical situation. The only way to ensure they will take the proper action during a crisis is to prepare them for it. Simulation training is needed to provide operators with realistic dress rehearsals for situations that require them to respond instinctively with competence and confidence. A simulator allows a supervisor to train and evaluate an operator objectively, spending time to guarantee that all critical aspects of operation and safety are clearly understood.

Simulation solution

Operator training simulator (OTS) technology enables safe and efficient plant startup in support of Suncor Energy’s corporate commitment to “Journey To Zero” and “Operational Excellence.” Suncor is committed to providing its employees with the proper tools and technology to execute their jobs, and is now building a simulator for each new project within the company.

Honeywell’s UniSim high-fidelity simulation platform was successfully integrated with the pre-MAT stage on Suncor’s 220,000-barrel-per-day upgrader. UniSim is a unified simulation solution providing Suncor with access to advanced Honeywell UOP optimization capabilities, and has been implemented on three OTSs (operator training simulators) across seven plants (cokers, sulfur, diesel, gas oil, naphtha, hydrogen, and unit operations) for a total of more than 45,000 I/O points.

The types of simulators in place at Suncor include: high-fidelity operator training simulators (existing plus new upgrader), FireBag Stage 3 (new), and Voyageur (new). In these operations, the UniSim solution will be used for:

  • New control room operator training (start-up, shutdown, and emergency procedures)
  • Existing control room operator refresher training (start-up, shutdown, and emergency procedures)
  • Supporting advanced process control (APC) and optimization
  • Validating DCS control and logic checkout
  • Validating and improving plant operating procedures
  • “What if?” scenario analysis, and
  • Developing and testing new control strategies

Best practices

Suncor Energy’s simulator program was based on an integrated team philosophy of owner, supplier, and other third parties. The keys to success included gathering comprehensive plant data, support for data analysis, timely delivery of a quality DCS database and training system, and a high-fidelity simulation platform with the same look and feel as a real system and plant. The program also allocated sufficient time for effective operator training, which was all supported with strong corporate and team commitments.

Based on Suncor’s experience, the recommended best practices for a simulator program include:

  • Choose a location for the simulator room that’s close to the main control room.
  • Simulator consoles and screens, as well as operator’s chairs, should replicate the main control room.
  • Rooms housing simulation equipment must be soundproofed.
  • Before employees are introduced to the simulator, they should be familiar with plant process to be simulated.
  • Training time should not exceed eight hours since there is no point in overloading or stressing out employees.
  • Conduct refresher courses three months after initial training to ensure no bad habits have been acquired.
  • At least twice yearly, panel operators need to show competence by performing emergency and start-up/shut down procedures.
  • Six-months of simulator training prior to plant commissioning is essential for ensuring that a start-up is safe, says on schedule, and minimizes costs.

Actual results

For Suncor Energy, having better trained operators via simulation means better operations: greater efficiency, less downtime, lower energy costs, less equipment damage, reduced production loss, closer environmental compliance, and a safer operation.

The current simulation program was successfully put in safe mode, on time and on budget. All engineering packages for three simulator rooms along with consoles, hardware, software, rackroom, and cable schedules have been completed.

Suncor will apply simulation throughout the project lifecycle to achieve specific operational objectives. For example, the company seeks to identify unit or process operating constraints at the conceptual design phase before capital expenditures are committed. It also wants to demonstrate APC and optimization applications before deployment, as well as fine-tune design issues such as control logic, alarms, and interlocks. In addition, Suncor’s goal is to begin start-up of new or modernized units or processes sooner, and complete them faster. It strives to train and develop operators on procedures and systems that are safe, optimized, and environmentally friendly. The simulator program is intended to capture existing operator skills with computer-based certification and transfer best practices to new operators with hands-on practice.

Finally, thanks to advanced OTS technology, Suncor aims to enjoy improved operating rates and product quality on an ongoing basis. This means avoiding or minimizing incidents, faster recovery from abnormal situations, easier fulfillment of government regulations for operator certification and environmental operations, and simulation applications for improving real-time operation and control.

Lessons learned

Suncor’s simulator program provided a number of valuable lessons that could be useful for other organizations considering similar efforts. These include:

1. Initiate simulator projects when all process data are available, and the design is least likely to change from the EDS phase:

  • Process data requirements include P&IDs, cause and effects, PFDs, logic narratives, control narratives, heat and material balance, and vendor documentation.
  • Design changes after initial project scope will lead to delays and extra costs.

2. Verify that everything is clearly spelled out in the contract:

  • Who will buy the simulator hardware, consoles, install, EWPs, etc.?

3. Make sure subject matter experts are available for defining the scope for each plant:

  • Detailed functional specification (DFS) phase is your chance to do this. If the scope is not defined, it will come back to haunt you.

4. Take time to get to know the company’s players and vendor personal on the project:

  • Helps build teamwork and eliminates an “us vs. them” attitude.

5. Project management should inform area stakeholders of their responsibilities and manpower requirements.

6. Secure management buy-in for the lifecycle of the project and beyond:

  • Include updates to the simulator as the plant changes.
  • Make sure there is a budget to cover additional technology investments.

Suncor’s corporate and organizational commitment to health, safety, and security ensured a successful simulator program. Simulation technology contributes to Suncor’s corporate business objectives via timely and effective operator training. It saves time and money, and ensures control systems will function properly when abnormal situations arise. Furthermore, an effective OTS enables training of new personnel in a resource-limited environment for safe and efficient plant start-up. This solution continuously improves control room operator skill sets to enable effective plant operation after initial start-up. It also provides Suncor with a stepping-stone for future APC and optimization applications.  

Donald M. Brooks is operations coordinator for Suncor Energy, Inc.