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Aging HPI workforce drives need for operator training systems

11.01.2011  |  Abel, J.,  ARC Advisory Group, 

Keywords: [training] [operator training] [workforce] [simulaton] [safety] [employees]

As a leading research and consulting organization focused on the process industries, manufacturing, infrastructure and other industrial sectors, ARC Advisory Group has been closely following the emerging skills crisis, its impact on industry, and potential solutions. In today’s business environment, hydrocarbon processing industry (HPI) companies push their plants to their limits, while, at the same time, both processes and control systems become increasingly more complex. Staffed largely with aging workforces, with many experienced operators getting ready to retire, companies need to ensure that they can continue to operate their plants in a safe, reliable and profitable manner. Operator training simulator (OTS) systems provide an excellent way to train new operators and refresh the skills of experienced ones.

Well-trained workforce.

With current business demands, the need for well-trained operators continues to increase. Many plants now operate with feedstocks and energy costs that change frequently depending on the source and market conditions. In addition, satisfying rapidly changing demand creates constant fluctuations and potential instabilities in unit operations that challenge even the most adroit process plants.

The changing demographics complicate the need to improve operations. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that more than 25% of the working population will soon reach retirement age. This could result in a shortage of almost 10 million workers. By 2030, more than 70 million people in the US will retire, with only about 30 million people available to replace them. A similar scenario is playing out in the European Union and in other developed nations.

The loss of knowledge and the shortage of workers will seriously jeopardize a company’s ability to operate safely and profitably. Human errors are costly, not only in terms of off-spec product and unscheduled downtime, but also in equipment damage, environmental harm and worker safety.

Immersive 3D VR becomes a reality for operator training.

Addressing the skills gap of younger workers requires a host of techniques. These include classroom, on-the-job and computer-based training; site visits to similar plants; and use of high-fidelity training simulators. Most young operators have never experienced a plant maintenance turnaround or a critical situation. The only way to ensure that they will take the proper action during a crisis is to prepare them for one. Most good training simulators allow for hands-on, scenario-based training to teach operators how to deal with normal and emergency situations without compromising the actual plant, worker safety and the environment. Few other tools offer this type of training opportunity.

Simulators also provide a great way to keep the current workforce performing at a high level of proficiency. Preventable human errors cause approximately 40% of all abnormal situations. Better-trained operators make fewer mistakes; recognize process upsets earlier; and can initiate the appropriate steps and actions to mitigate any potentially harmful, wasteful or detrimental effects.

In training, realism is very important. Model fidelity must be sufficient to replicate the response of the plant so that the operators cannot tell the difference between the simulation and the real thing. The more realistic the simulation, the more the trainees will accept the method and retain what they’ve learned from their experience with the simulator.

Virtual reality (VR) adds another dimension of realism to simulation. VR has been used with excellent results for many years to train astronauts, pilots and military personnel. Now, high-fidelity, 3D virtual reality simulators are available for the process manufacturing and energy industries. VR technology—whether 3D graphics with avatars that interact with the plant and each other or a host of other immersive technologies that use stereoscopic 3D goggles and gloves—has the potential to significantly change the way operators in the process industries train. This is especially true for addressing the skill gap of younger workers, who tend to embrace the latest technology.

Experienced operators and engineers should also find immersive simulators appealing because of their high-fidelity process and control simulation capabilities, plus their VR capability that provides a realistic and safe training environment for improving efficiency and skills.

In one example, Invensys developed a VR training simulator for the US Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) that extends the training scope to both control room and outside operators, allowing them to coordinate activities and work as a team the way they would in a real plant. The simulator also allows them to see parts diagrams, work orders and examine the inside of vessels during training sessions. In the virtual world, trainees can perform routine tasks such as opening and closing valves and turning on pumps. It is even possible to practice extinguishing a virtual fire during a simulated emergency; a training routine that could not be attempted in a real plant. This type of experience reinforces learning by bringing virtual reality closer to reality in the process world. HP

The author 

  Janice Abel is a principal consultant at ARC Advisory Group. She performs consulting services and research for ARC’s clients in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, consumer products, food, beverages, chemicals, oil and gas, and other process industries. Ms. Abel earned a BS degree in chemistry from Clark University, and both an MS degree in chemical engineering and an MBA from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.  

Have your say
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jorge balo Sumbo

i Janice
what are the conditions to attend this training, and i would like to undestand if you train the trainer for like trainers who dlivers DCS training, or you just train operator on the OTS.

Michael A. Taube

What about the Engineering, Maintenance & Management workforce? These groups are feeling the effects of the very same situation. What are operating & EPC companies doing to address the severe shortfall of qualified staff for these vital areas?

The short answer is: nothing. Many continue following the same old recruiting/hiring routine either because they are blissfully ignorant or refuse to accept what is clear for all to see. All of the HPI will have to become very creative to address the shortfall. Copious use of contractors & consultants is part of the solution, but, that too, has its limitations. The next 5 years is going to be very interesting.

karim rahimi- khamnei

Training a good operation team in process units is a real challenge of HC processing industries. These programs, although diversified these days, should prompt operator's "vigillence" as well as his accountability. I would say a good training program does justify its high expenses, an investment does not drain in sink!

Manuel R. Suarez

Simulators, VR etc. are all great tools for training. However, they are just tools and should not be construed as a 'training system'. The latter is what is really needed and seldom seeing. The few times that I have seen proper 'training systems' implemented and used by an operating facility, the profits and advantages are huge and truly reflect in the company's bottom line.
As an analogy, take the NMR in medicine. It surely helps in diagnosing a health problem but that's all it is, a tool. The true diagnosis is made by someone capable of using NMR information together with other tools, skills, abilities and knowledge to produce a diagnosis.

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