- By Veronica Turner
- March 12, 2020
- Honeywell Inc.
Experiential learning is increasingly accepted as the most effective way to develop competency for both operators and field workers. To build truly effective operations, though, we need to bring them together.
In chemical processing as in other industrial processes, competency is key. A plant’s people largely determine whether the operation is efficient and safe – and, therefore, whether it is sustainable.
Research from the Abnormal Situations Management Consortium shows that up to 40% of abnormal situation losses are directly caused by individuals. Insufficient knowledge, operator errors and maintenance work mistakes are three of the key contributors. Moreover, another approximate 40% are due to equipment failure – a major cause of which is operating equipment outside of normal range: a defect of operator competency once again.
This has long been recognized, of course, but two long-term trends mean these challenges continue to grow.
The first is – ironically – the expansion of automation, and the now well-established automation paradox: The more that basic monitoring and control of process parameters are automated, the more crucial and complex the cases where the operator is still required to act. Operators are called on for infrequent occurrences such as starting up, shutting down and responding to abnormal situations. Not only will they only encountered some of these situations infrequently, but they also are not immersed in many of the minute-to-minute monitoring and control decisions of the process that would add to their depth of understanding of the process.
“[The] automatic control system has been put in because it can do the job better than the operator, but yet the operator is being asked to monitor that it is working effectively,” as psychologist Lisanne Bainbridge put it long ago.
The second long-term factor that adds to the challenge of ensuring and maintaining competency is the ageing workforce. Across many of the process industries, experienced staff are rapidly retiring. The average age of employees in the chemical industry was 45.3 years – in 2013.
While this trend has been progressing over a longer time, it is quickly coming to a head. Within five years, almost a quarter of the chemical workforce will be eligible to retire, according to consultants Deloitte. There are already reports of skills shortages for technical positions in key regions, not just the U.S. but also in the U.K., for example. Tackling the shortages will require a rapid and widespread changing of the guard.
Meet the Millennials
In their place, comes a new generation: millennials, who are forecast to account for around half the global workforce in 2020.
As a generation, they bring their own particular challenges, as well as strengths. For a start, they are well-documented job hoppers. This may, in fact, reflect little more than their age (rather than a generational attribute); younger workers, in general, tend to change jobs more frequently, and baby boomers did the same in their youth. That makes little difference in practice, though: One study found close to half of millennial workers planning to leave their current employers in under two years. With long, traditional training courses at some chemical plants, that leaves little productive work before many workers may be expected to move on.
Moreover, there is significant evidence that traditional training methods are less effective with this new generation, potentially delaying time to competency or undermining it. Rather than lectures, millennials favor active, experiential learning. It’s a generation that thrives on learning by doing.
As one piece of research found, “The millennial generation is decidedly comprised of active learners.”
This is, in any case, the most effective way to learn. The well established “learning pyramid” suggests that practicing a skill enables students to retain up to 15 times the information they would from simply hearing it taught in a lecture. It is more effective than reading, discussion or even demonstrations in imparting knowledge. Only teaching it themselves enables individuals to better process and commit new learning to memory.
Simulation Spreads to the Field
Fortunately, this is increasingly well recognized in many industries.
The process industries, drawing on the aerospace industry’s decades of experience training pilots, have long used simulation for operators. Dynamic simulations – already used for feasibility studies, “what-if” analysis, process and control engineering – replicate the plant and process and its reaction to operator inputs. Combining these with an operator program that mimics the graphics and functionality of genuine operator stations creates the basis of a powerful training tool.
Operator training simulator (OTS) solutions provide trainees with hands-on practice in a realistic operating environment, without the real-world risks associated with actually letting trainees loose on the plant controls. Not only can trainees gain familiarity with normal operations to build their confidence and competency, they can also repeatedly practice infrequent tasks such as shutdowns and start-ups or abnormal situations that occur more rarely if ever: Gaining valuable experience that would take years to accumulate on the job. Trainees can practice and be ready for the freak events that plant management hopes will never occur, but for which their actions could make all the difference.
OTS is not simply a solution for new trainees. It can also have a powerful function in assessing experienced operators, creating a controlled environment in which to analyze and address job-related behavior.
While OTS is a mainstay in operator training, experiential learning has taken longer to establish itself in the field. Mostly, this is simply down to technological limitations in the past: It has been easier to create a convincing simulation of the operator station than the plant floor.
With technological advancements, however, convincing simulations of the plant, devices and equipment can now be rendered using augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) headsets; the difference between them is that the latter entirely immerses the user in the graphical world with a headset covering their eyes, while the former overlays graphics onto the environment around them.
These bring the benefits OTS has long delivered to operators to the field worker: Users can gain hands-on practice of both routine and infrequent tasks without adverse consequences if they make a mistake. Moreover, just as process simulations have more than one use, the technology used for these immersive competency solutions is extremely versatile, so that they can be used as much as a productivity tool as a training solution. Combined with hands-free voice control and wearable computers, augmented reality could even be used in the field to help guide workers actually completing tasks.
Both these technologies meet the key challenges faced by the chemical industry: First, they radically accelerate the time to competency of trainees. That’s long been recognized with OTS, but if anything is even more striking with AR and VR solutions. Training and guidance can be delivered on demand – even in the field – enabling plants to safely send workers out faster. When recruits are assigned an unfamiliar task, they can simply download the training module, practice and then complete the job, perhaps on the same day. Use in industries to date suggests that this can reduce time to typical times to competency by two thirds.
Second, these solutions meet the need of a new generation for a new type of learning: Not just active rather than passive, but also technologically enabled. As a generation of “digital natives” the new generation of field workers as well as operators are not only comfortable and familiar with such tools for their work and learning, but increasingly demand them. Given that the difficulty of attracting younger workers to the chemical industry is one of the factors identified as contributing to skills shortages, meeting these demands is important as well as practical for operators. Quite simply it’s a win-win: recruits get the type of training solutions they desire, and plant operators get solutions that accelerate learning and boost competency.
If it’s a victory, however, it is one that is not being fully embraced. There remains one area of weakness in even the most technologically enabled training programs have yet to address: The interaction between these two key roles.
The control room panel operators provide the bird’s-eye view of operations, but the field workers represent its boots on the ground. To check readings, investigate issues, troubleshoot problems and complete maintenance, operators rely on those in the field as their eyes, ears and hands. To understand the context, direct their work, and keep safe, field workers depend on operators’ oversight. The success of the collaboration between the two roles will be a key factor in determining how well each is able to do their job. And the ability to work effectively together is a key element of the competency required for both roles.
To date, though, the ability to practice these skills has been severely limited. In the OTS, simulations may mimic the effect of activities in the field, but not the communication collaborative experience. For field workers, it has been even harder to set training in the context of other roles.
A New Solution: Greater than the sum of its parts
In fact, though, the technological advancements that have made it possible to easily deliver immersive competency solutions to field workers, also now make collaborative learning possible.
VR training for field workers can be linked to the OTS used by control room operators. Adjustments made in the VR (or AR) environment act as inputs to the simulation model, and the results reflected in real time in the OTS screens for panel trainees. Likewise, any relevant changes to the process made by the operator will be seen in the VR render of equipment that field workers are training on.
Experience in practice is already demonstrating significant benefits with this approach over existing, disconnected training solutions. First, it brings a new, less structured approach to training for both parties. While certain potential actions of both field workers and control room operators can be (and should continue to be) mimicked in existing OTS and immersive competency solutions, combining the training brings a less predictable and more realistic approach. Trainees can be confronted with the mistakes and queries of their colleagues that plant management and trainers have not anticipated.
Second, it offers opportunities for efficiency, enabling experienced trainers to work with and assess both operators and field workers in the same session.
Finally, and most obviously, it enables both operators and field workers to gain experience working together – and to be assessed – in a safe, training environment. The routine communication required for normal operations; the back-and-forth and close collaboration to resolve an abnormal situation or switch out certain equipment; and the chaos and demands for information during upset conditions: They can all be experienced rather than simply taught, with both roles involved gaining valuable experience – and trainers themselves gaining insights into the dynamics of the relationship between the two. The solution means that plants cannot only develop competency in their workforce, but begin to build teams.
 Bullemer, P.T and Nimo, I. 1996. A Training Perspective on Abnormal Situation Management: Establishing an Enhanced Learning Environment. Proceedings of the 1996 AIChE conference on Process Plant Safety, Houston, TX
 https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/managing-tomorrows-people/future-of-work/assets/reshaping-the- workplace.pdf
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