Automation Training and Education Advances

It’s time to start up a section of the refinery.

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You walk down the road over to the first valve that must be opened, and you open it. Then you walk over to the next valve, avoiding the pipes and equipment in the way, and open that valve. Then it’s upstairs to a mezzanine for the next set of valves. With your peripheral vision, you can see your operator/partner accomplishing his set of tasks. With all the start-up procedures accomplished, you remove your special “virtual reality goggles,” and the instructor who has been monitoring your work on a computer beside you—and throwing an obstacle or two in your way—debriefs you.

This is actually a new product from Invensys Operations Management (www.invensys.com), Plano, Texas, that was unveiled to industry editors Sept. 22 at the company’s North American Client Conference in Houston. The “operator” uses a Microsoft Xbox gaming interface—surely familiar to new hires into the refinery or other process facilities—to maneuver through the plant, performing required tasks. This “immersive virtual reality” training uses special imaging and goggles to present a realistic 3D environment imported from pictures and drawings. Dubbed EYESim, the system allows companies to capture best practices and then train the next generation of operators.

“The increasing complexity of plants, combined with a changing workforce, demands next-generation tools that can safely and interactively train new operators and engineers without putting them, the community or the environment at risk,” said Tobias Scheele, vice president, advanced applications, Invensys Operations Management. “This system provides a stable, realistic environment for practicing routine operational and maintenance functions, as well as rarely performed volatile tasks such as plant shutdowns. In addition, using computer models of real equipment allows endless experimentation without ever taking the equipment off line, mitigating risk to production as well.”

Learn through doing

Another company vigorously promoting educating the next generation of engineers and technicians is National Instruments (www.ni.com). Ray Almgren, vice president of academic relations at the Austin, Texas-based instrumentation and automation supplier, is prominent during every NI Week user conference showing successes with products and accomplishments of programs designed to recruit, educate and motivate a new breed of engineers. Recently he has been promoting a concept called “project-based learning.”

The Buck Institute for Education (BIE, www.bie.org), a non-profit, research and development organization dedicated to improving the practice of teaching and the process of learning, defines standards-focused project-based learning as “a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.” Projects can range from brief projects of one to two weeks based on a single subject, to year-long, interdisciplinary projects that involve community participation and adults outside the school.

People who are motivated and enthusiastic to learn, will learn. Project-based education is designed to provide an environment where teams of kids can get involved and enthusiastic about achieving something. To illustrate the power of motivation, I suggest the example of a young man I know who has a great love of country music. Even though his “intelligence level” is pretty far below normal, he has learned to use a computer to surf the Web to stream music and research. When I told him I was going to Texas once, he proceeded to list about 20 country musicians from Texas. I told him how impressed I was, and he replied, “I’m interested in this, so I study it.” There are many companies and people putting together ideas, technologies and products to help capture the imagination of the next generation and train and educate them in engineering and manufacturing. They hope to get them interested so they’ll learn.

Gary Mintchell, gmintchell@automationworld.com, is Editor in Chief of Automation World.

Invensys Operations Management
www.invensys.com

National Instruments
www.ni.com 

The Buck Institute for Education, BIE
www.bie.org

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