New Strategies for Training Qualified Operators and Technicians

Aug. 7, 2017
Lewis and Clark Community College partnered with Siemens to create a unique student program that blends simulation and internships, giving students the real-world experience required to be successful as a plant floor operator.

Manufacturers in America could face a serious setback if the latest industry crisis is not resolved. The problem is the severe shortage of skilled labor needed to fill the 600,000 or so open jobs for factory technicians, electricians, operators and more. By 2020, that number is expected to swell to 10 million skilled workers needed.

It’s a problem that requires involvement from the manufacturers themselves, as well as suppliers and the academic community. A great example of such a cooperative effort in action is the strategic partnership between Lewis and Clark Community College (L&C), the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) and Siemens Corp.

Lewis and Clark Community College, located in Edwardsville, Illinois, launched a technical program designed specifically for operators and technicians in manufacturing about 14 years ago when a local oil and gas refinery approached the school with a problem—a lack of skilled operators. The refinery provided seed money to get the program off the ground, hire faculty and provide basic equipment.

Since then, the curriculum has grown into two degree programs. One is an Associate in Applied Science (AAS) in Process Operations Technology, which currently has about 150 active students. The other is an AAS in Instrumentation and Control Systems, which is enrolling now for Fall 2017.

The student demographic is diverse—from 19-year-olds who want to text the instructor when they are late for class, to students in their 50s who want a physical handout of the assignment and don’t want to look online.

“We cater to both of those groups,” L&C Instructor Paul Kuebrich said during his presentation at the 2017 Siemens Automation Summit. “But the thing they have in common is that they learn best when they are hands-on.”

To that end, what’s really unique about the Process Operations Technology program is the use of simulation technology, which then leads to hands-on training at the NCERC biofuel pilot plant and even internships—which have been offered to more than 70 students since 2014.

A New Class Curriculum

It all starts in the classroom, and not just referencing textbooks, but actually handling the instruments on a benchtop. Siemens donates many of the components, which range from programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to pressure devices. Students even learn Ladder logic and program PLCs via the Siemens’ TIA portal—all of the exact same tools used in industry.

“The students can put on their resume that they know how to program an S7-1200 [PLC], and they can demonstrate those skills,” Kuebrich said.

Plus, the internships give them valuable experience.

“They say they learn as much in the first two weeks as an intern as they do in the first two years as a student,” he said.

Before they get to the real plant, students are “playing” with the technology on the college campus. The college made an important investment in Siemens Simit, which is simulation software that replicates the Siemens Simatic PCS 7 distributed control system (DCS).

Used in the classroom, it provides a full replica of the DCS system found in the pilot plant, including the client/server architecture and virtual time management. The investment into simulation software was justified as the pilot plant can’t be running equipment to train operators while it is in turnaround mode.

“Client trials are expensive and many times a 'one shot' experiment,” Kuebrich said. “We can't risk something going wrong due to lack of operator training. On the job training is great, but a foundation needs to be laid first.”

Simit not only provides a way for students to experience the same operations and controls environment that is running on the plant floor, but Kuebrich is also teaching his students the importance of communication.

Having the ability to work on a DCS vs. a standalone PLC provides an environment where operators can learn how to talk with each other as they work on the same Simatic WinCC interface. The two main advantages of Simit are communication and speed, Kuebrich said. Since SIMIT incorporates the entire DCS architecture, it allows for multiple operator stations so that multiple people are working, communicating and interacting on the same simulation.

“We’ll have operators stationed in different areas to work together like they would in a plant,” Kuebrich said. “Building communication skills is what industry needs as much, if not more, than the actual technical knowledge. Communication and teamwork are keys for successful operator training. I can explain over and over again how important communication is, but until operators experience it first-hand they never fully understand.”

In addition, with simulation, more processes can be explained ina shorter amount of time.Simit’s virtual time management feature allows them to take real life scenarios—that make take hours—and compress them into the classroom setting. For example, a distillation system that takes 12 hours to be brought up to operating temperature in real life can be simulated in a 2- to 4-hour training session.Simulations can also be slowed down when upsets happen. Things happen quickly in a distillation system, so slowing down the simulations allows for operators to grasp a greater understanding of the moves they are making and the results of their actions.

The ability to take a 'snapshot' of a simulation allows for better time utilization when troubleshooting, as the system is already at steady state when the lesson starts. Then, SIMIT runs through different simulations to provide faults. Pumps go down, there’s fouling of heat exchangers, temperature and pressures change, for example, and students go through these scenarios multiple times to get a good feel of what needs to be done to fix the situation.

More On-the-Job Training

In L&C’s new Instrumentation and Control Systems program, students will also be able to build a PCS 7 project using Simit.

“Usually technicians need years and years of experience before they can start a project,” explained Kuebrich. “We use this to get the full feeling of what it’s like to start from scratch to really understand the basics of what goes into PCS 7, including how to connect the architecture, set up addresses and getting it all hooked together.”

Once completing the simulation training, many students will participate in an internship program at NCERC, which provides them the experience that becomes a great recruiting tool to connect students with future employers.

“From the machinery and equipment to the various forms of instrumentation to the operational procedures and health and safety, I was able to observe and discuss each aspect of the facility with the NCERC staff,” one intern said. “The depth of knowledge and experience of the staff, along with their willingness to explain the process and address my questions only added to the value of this experience.”

Eventually, graduates go into the oil, offshore, chemical and biofuels industries.

“Anything with a tank and a valve,” Kuebrich said.

The collaboration between the college, NCERC and Siemens serves as a proof point that this training model works.

“We have shown that we can do this through the help of Siemens providing us components at the educational discount,” Kurbrich said. “And not just components, because everyone has stuff, but components representative of the industry that is being supported.”

According to Amanda Beaton, U.S. manager for the Siemens Cooperates with Education program (, the company is working with more than 500 schools in a breadth of programs including mechatronics, electronics and robotics. Siemens provides an online “partner school finder” to help manufacturers find schools teaching with Siemens technology, she said, as “we want to connect industry to education to help close the skills gap plaguing so many companies.”

For Lewis and Clark Community College, the next step is to expand the use of the Simit technology and work with other companies to expand the scope of the technology projects they teach to include oil and gas or even food and beverages.

“We have the hardware, software and virtual controller, there’s no limit to the different [kinds of] projects,” Kuebrich said.

While Kuebrich recommends the use of an operator training system, he does urge educators to take their time and think it through before purchasing simulation software.

“Simulation is worth the money spent as long as it is thought out and done with a clear attainable objective in mind,” he said.“Before the current system, the one we had was put together without as much thought for how the end user would interact with it. The previous system was useful, but not to the extent the Simit system is.”

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