July 2018

Special Focus: Refinery of the future

Develop competence in the process industry with a digitalized operator learning path

Industrial digitalization is changing the standards for operator training in the global process industry.

Industrial digitalization is changing the standards for operator training in the global process industry. Advanced training systems are based on a learning path strategy and take advantage of versatile training methods and pedagogical theories—i.e., the science of learning. Recently introduced educational gamesa both complement and intensify the learning path (Fig. 1) of traditional training, such as operator training simulators (OTS) and written and lectured materials.

FIG. 1. A digitalized learning path, with educational games and operator training simulators, helps avoid gaps that are present in traditional operator training.

The learning path allows seamless transfer between different learning modalities and competence levels. A well-designed set of modern learning methods forms an effective professional training system that supports organized and individual training, rapid learning, competence tracking and learning analytics.

Demand for high-quality training originates from the fact that operators are managing both safe and optimal operation of process units consisting of versatile processes in a diverse set of expensive equipment. Proper training of new operators, and continuous education of more experienced operators, are economically beneficial. Training can help decrease operating and maintenance costs by reducing the number of unplanned shutdowns and equipment repairs, reducing downtime, ensuring smoother startup, and improving operational safety by being closer to the economic optimum.

Educational games. Professional games are a relatively new addition to training methods in process industries. Systematic competence development of operators—methodologies, learning results and availability—can be radically improved by applying a relevant set of process-phenomenon-specific educational games. 

Rather than replacing traditional training, the educational games enhance and complete existing forms of training. By combining these methods with an operator training simulator, the competence levels of operators can be improved faster and, most importantly, without accidents in a real plant.

Gamification. Traditionally, gamification means applying game design elements and principles into non-game contexts, such as training. The most important lesson learned from games, relevant to learning and training, is motivation. Most game-design patterns focus on keeping motivation levels high and making many games interesting, exciting and fun to play. 

Educational games aim to bring these qualities into learning. The motivation level of trainees directly correlates with the learning retention rate. The games automatically bring extremely desirable features for the learning process: high motivation, an encouraging atmosphere and an excellent focus into essential and instant feedback. 

Available, realistic training solution. While the unit-specific simulators benefit from authentic facilities and user interfaces that replicate real-world control room settings, the only requirement for browser-based games is a computer with an internet connection. Moreover, as the educational games are based on cloud technology, the games are available for virtually an unlimited number of users at a given time. This frees the educational games from any traditional time and space constraints that may limit training availability.

The first educational games available for operator training in the refining industry already apply engineering-level process models for dynamic simulations. This makes the training experience realistic, and also allows operators to learn interdependencies between different process phenomena and their own control actions.

Novel training concepts. Educational games support deeper learning processes, such as experimenting, experiential learning and gamified approaches. Games can offer, for example, fast-paced scenarios, where the trainee is solving challenging problems, such as fault situations happening at rapid intervals. This helps develop skills of reasonable acting under high-pressure situations, and can also be significantly rewarding and motivating when the trainee completes the challenge successfully. 

FIG. 2. Educational games can also provide a competitive training experience, allowing operators from around the world to test and benchmark their skills.

Another advantageous example of gamification is a competitive approach to training (Fig. 2). With educational games, teams can compete against one another in a variety of missions within the refining processes. This can change learning into something that is at the same time exciting and fun, and also serious and competitive.

Operator training simulator. A high-quality OTS is a comprehensive training solution comprising sophisticated models of all process units with fast simulation of various production states and fault situations. Features of a well-designed OTS include:

  • Extensive and customizable training functionality
  • High-fidelity process models that predict accurate thermal performance and chemical conversion for complex process equipment
  • Automation models with detailed process controls, safety logics functions and sequence loops
  • Comprehensive emulated DCS interface with trends and alarms that provide a realistic control experience for operators
  • State-of-the-art OPC Unified Architecture for communication between software components
  • Modern trainer dashboard that provides easy usage, reporting and tracking, thereby helping manage and improve training.

The most profitable way to build an OTS is during the design and commissioning phase of an investment project, as its benefits are well recognized for the commissioning and startup phases of projects. In the design and commissioning phase of a project, an OTS can assist with several functions:

  • Testing the design of control and safety automation systems
  • Testing the functionality of operator user interface layouts
  • Virtually testing process design and changes
  • Allowing the planning of safe startups and shutdowns, as well as safety logics for abnormal situations, such as equipment failures.

For training purposes, the OTS is very flexible; any fault situation can be safely simulated, operators are trained and safety logics can be further improved. Increased availability and reduced downtime are direct benefits for a process facility. In practice, the savings from an OTS for mid-size refineries are estimated at several million dollars per year. Over the lifecycle of a process facility, the OTS also acts as a flexible design tool for automation and process improvements.

Benefits of the digitized learning path. Optimally, the operator learning path encompasses a diverse set of training methods covering all needs, from learning basic principles to reaching the level of ready-to-operate and the continuous training of skilled, experienced operators for unexpected fault situations. The benefits of these capabilities come to practice with the following principles:

  • Comprehensive: Educational games and OTS complement each other; they fulfill different training needs and help avoid gaps prevailing in traditional training
  • Manageable: Competence levels of trainees can be monitored, and further training focused accordingly
  • Efficiency: Fast and cost-effective training of new operators and focused training for experienced operators
  • Accessibility: Educational games offer unparalleled availability and are easily accessible at any time, from any location with internet connectivity
  • Motivation: Feedback from educational games gathered in 2017 indicated that most of the trainees learned more and faster compared to traditional training methods, and 100% of the trainees found the learning experience to be fun
  • Benchmarking: Learning analytics allow the assessment of performance levels of teams and the pinpointing of bottlenecks in competence areas.

Changing global market trends—e.g., crude flexibility, renewables and tightening competition—guarantee that demand for the professional know-how of operators will only grow. As the era of digitization moves forward, new, advanced solutions for operator training will emerge, providing the refined know-how for safe operation during startups, shutdowns and abnormal situations, as well as enabling economically driven process optimization in various operational circumstances. 

The recently introduced educational games and operator training simulator form essential parts of an advanced digitalized training system. HP


aNAPCON Games is a portfolio of educational games for the process industry, and an integral part of the NAPCON Operator Learning Path.

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