January 2017

Process Control and Instrumentation

Solve operator training in a challenging refining industry

Workforce reduction, the expected retirement of baby boomers, personnel leaving the industry in search of better opportunities, and the lack of jobs for new graduates will create a skills deficit once the industry begins growing again.

Alamo, J., SNC-Lavalin Inc.; Ross, M., Honeywell Process Solutions

The oil refining and natural gas processing industries witnessed the loss of approximately 350,000 jobs during the recent crisis, according to a study by Houston, Texas-based Graves & Co. Workforce reduction, the expected retirement of baby boomers, personnel leaving the industry in search of better opportunities, and the lack of jobs for new graduates will create a skills deficit once the industry begins growing again.

Employees that remain in the industry will be asked to cover, temporarily or permanently, for those that are leaving. Quickly and effectively training these employees will be critical to the success of operating companies. Paradoxically, in times of crisis, training budgets are often one of the first expenditures to be reduced.

The advantages of using innovative simulators over traditional methods to train operators and highlights of how they can be used to maximize benefits by incorporating them into a structured training program are presented here, as are approaches to prioritizing investments in simulation technology.

Rethinking traditional strategies

Traditional training programs combine theoretical training and on-the-job training (OJT) programs. Theoretical training takes many forms, including formal classroom, self-study with one-on-one sessions, e-learning, etc. OJT consists of shadowing and mentoring activities, and serves as reinforcement and practice of the concepts and/or procedures covered during theoretical sessions.

In recent decades, control room training has effectively used operator training simulators (OTSs) in putting new operators into “real-world” situations. Realistic models represent the behavior of the plant and controls over a wide range of conditions, from normal operations to emergency situations. Distributed control system (DCS) screens are either replicated in a desktop computer (emulated) or used on a DCS console that is dedicated to training. The resulting system is a realistic and safe environment for familiarizing the trainee with the operation of the unit and for practicing standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Without question, effective training for field operators is just as critical as console operator training. After all, field operators are the control room operator’s “eyes and ears” to ensure secure and efficient plant processes. However, field operator training has often lagged behind, focusing mainly on shadowing and mentoring, which may be inappropriate for upsets and emergency conditions. These situations must be resolved quickly, leaving no time for demonstrations or explanations.

Immersive training simulators (ITSs) can be used to supplement OJT programs. These simulators provide a safe and immersive environment to train field operators and maintenance personnel. Trainees navigate a 3D replica of their plant. Facility layout, equipment, instrumentation, piping, walkways, sound and lighting are recreated to provide a sense of immersion and seamless transposition to the real plant after training.

Traditionally, ITSs have not been used due to cost constraints. An ITS typically costs the same as an OTS; however, advances in CAD modeling, gaming technology and video card throughput have resulted in significant cost reductions. 

Accelerate and improve learning

Refineries and chemical plants are densely populated with equipment carrying flammable components at high pressures and temperatures. Knowing the exact location of equipment and determining the quickest and safest routes are critical to managing and dissipating abnormal situations. An ITS allows trainees to familiarize themselves with the facilities, including hazardous and/or restrictive areas, in a safe and comfortable environment. The ITS can significantly speed up training for greenfield plants during construction. It is also valuable for production platforms and other remote facilities, where the costs of transportation and lodging for personnel are expensive.

Complex systems control the units. Operators must be able to navigate through dozens of DCS graphics and monitor hundreds of variables. Performing real-life scenarios safely in an OTS will accelerate and improve trainees’ retention of alarm settings, the location of variables in the graphics, control strategies and process dynamics.

The simulators also allow trainees to make mistakes and review the impacts of their actions with the instructor. This is a critical part of learning that is impossible using OJT activities, thereby providing a clear advantage over other types of training.

Reduce operator errors

Refinery operators must be capable of executing many complex procedures. Missing procedural steps, or changing the order of those steps, can damage equipment and cause an unplanned shutdown, or even an accident. Studies have shown that at least 40% of abnormal situations are caused by human error; 29% of these human errors are caused by procedures not being followed.1

The old adage, “Practice makes perfect,” is very appropriate for training operators. Operators cannot learn complex procedures without practicing, and they must frequently perform these procedures to keep them fresh in their minds. This may be difficult to achieve, since “starting up” a real unit or complex equipment does not happen often. With simulation, trainees can practice until they feel comfortable, and they can do so without monopolizing the time of the instructors or senior operators.

Another major cause of human error is stress, which can be reduced by practicing realistic scenarios. Immersing an operator or an emergency response team in a simulated emergency will improve their responses without impacting operations. For example, the Maersk’s Ngujima-Yin floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) fire was handled competently by the crew. Given the highly flammable substances and high density of equipment and piping in an FPSO, this accident could have had catastrophic consequences had emergency response and firefighting teams performed inadequately.

Improve competency assessment and development

ITSs and OTSs are critical tools in identifying the development baseline and plan. Simulation exercises can be used to evaluate the proficiency of each operator against the competency model of their particular job profile. The results of simulation exercises can be transferred to a competency management system (CMS), and new exercises can be created to train personnel on potential upsets that are not included in the curriculum, or recent situations experienced in the plant or throughout the industry.

The simulators also have sophisticated built-in evaluation tools, such as trainee performance tables, which measure the time that trainees operate outside a defined range for critical variables. These tools can not only be used to evaluate one or more competencies, but also to improve the operator’s ability to maintain the process within a recommended operating range.

Improve teamwork and communication

ITSs and OTSs can be linked to recreate the actual working environment of field and control room operators. The field operator is immersed in the virtual plant environment, and the control room operator is in front of the replica of the DCS console. When the two simulators are connected, actions, process variables and equipment status are transferred between the two applications.

For example, when the field operator starts a pump by pressing a button in the ITS, the start signal is sent to the OTS. The simulator verifies that the permissive allows the pump to start, actually starts the pump and calculates the outlet pressure and flow. The operator will hear the pump motor starting, and see the pressure rise and the flow increase in the local indicators.

Being able to communicate effectively is a crucial component of plant operations, particularly during abnormal situations. Executing joint training exercises with field and control room operators on the simulators allows trainees to build their teamwork and communication skills, while increasing the fidelity of the simulated environment.


Fig. 1. Typical training path for control room and field operators.

Simulators are extremely useful and efficient training tools, but they can be used even more effectively within a structured training program containing a mix of theory, practice and OJT. A typical path for such a training program is shown in FIG. 1.


Chemistry, processes and controls are foundations of the knowledge required for operators to perform their jobs. Theoretical elements are shown in the white boxes in FIG. 1. Simulation exercises can be used to reinforce and apply these concepts. For example, requiring trainees to manually control and maintain several related processes at their desired values will reinforce knowledge of process dynamics and improve their ability to concentrate and monitor multiple variables.


ITSs and OTSs are used at different stages of the training program—in the beginning to introduce and reinforce concepts, and at the end to practice complex procedures and manage emergency situations. Practice elements are shown in blue and green (FIG. 1). A few examples of practice exercises are listed in TABLE 1.

Transition to the job

OJT activities reinforce acquired knowledge, allowing trainees to gradually master the skills required and demonstrate the ability to perform specific roles. Because simulation is used prior to OJT activities, trainees will have performed tasks in either the ITS or the OTS, which accelerates the transition to the job.

Focus on critical areas

Fig. 2. Suggested approach to prioritizing simulation investments.

Even if benefits are clear, and the cost of developing simulators has decreased over time, purchasing a simulator is a non-negligible investment. As shown in FIG. 2, companies can prioritize their investment along three variables: unit risk, human capital and training benefit/cost ratio:

  • Unit risk measures a process’ criticality and complexity. The classifications shown in each quadrant of FIG. 2 are debatable—each plant should define its own criteria. Criticality may measure the impact of a unit shutdown on the rest of the plant, while complexity may be based on the sensitivity of the unit to exceed its operating range due to operator actions or upset conditions.
  • Human capital represents the capacity of an individual or group of individuals to produce value. Views on how to measure this capacity abound. From an organizational perspective, these may include years of experience, employee turnover, motivational index, workforce competence, etc. Literature summarizes different indicators for the measurement of human capital.2 From a practical point of view, it is not the value given to each unit that is important, but the relative value of that unit compared to other units.
  • Training benefits/cost ratio measures an investment’s attractiveness and is represented in FIG. 2 by the size of the bubble depicting the training project. Large bubbles represent low-hanging fruit, and bubble size should clarify selection of projects within a category (e.g., within the high-risk category). Measuring the benefits of training is not simple, but it is vital when determining the allocation of funds and resources. Again, at this level of analysis, the focus should be on the relative benefits of the training project portfolio. Among the different units, where will the investment in training offer the most benefits? Which unit is suffering the most from operational errors? It is important to evaluate whether training alone will supply the benefits, or whether other investments in updating SOPs or instrumentation are also required. Once projects are selected, a more detailed analysis can be performed. A detailed report on the ROI of a training program at Indian Oil Corp. has been published.3

Allocating first funds to units in the high-priority quadrant is recommended. These scored low in human capital and high in risk dimension. Funds should then go to units with either low human capital or high risk. Investments in units with high human capital and low risk must be evaluated, as compliance factors that require training investments in these units are possible.

Petroleum refineries can use new simulation technologies to improve training of new and existing employees into operator positions. Knowledgeable and well-trained operators make better decisions, resulting in more stable and profitable operations, longer-lasting equipment and, most importantly, fewer accidents and lower environment impact. HP


  1. Bullemer, P. T. and J. R. Hajdukiewicz, “A study of effective procedural practices in refining and chemical operations,” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s 48th Annual Meeting, New Orleans, Louisiana, September 20–24, 2004.
  2. Lim, L. L. K., C. C. A. Chan and P. Dallimore, “Perceptions of human capital measures: From corporate executives and investors,” Journal of Business and Psychology, Vol. 25, Iss. 4, pp. 673–688, December 2010.
  3. Subramanian, K. S., V. Sinha and P. D. Gupta, “A study on return on investment of training programme in a government enterprise in India,” Vikalpa, The Journal for Decision Makers, Vol. 37, No. 1, January–March 2012.

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