Aging Workforce Drives Need for Operator Training Systems

ARC Advisory Group (www.arcweb.com) has been closely following the emerging skills crisis, its impact on industry and potential solutions.

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In today’s business environment, manufacturing companies must 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 anticipating the retirement of many experienced operators, companies need to ensure that they can continue to operate their plants in a safe, reliable and profitable manner. Technology presents a solution in the form of operator training simulator (OTS) systems. These provide an excellent way to train new operators and refresh the skills of experienced ones.

With today’s 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 operators.

Immersive 3D virtual reality

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 percent 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.

Video - Virtual Reality Software. View a demo of this immersive virtual reality training and iPad application that monitors the location of plant operators. Visit bit.ly/awvid_055

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 its high-fidelity process and control simulation capability, plus its VR capability that provides a realistic and safe training environment for improving efficiency and skills.

Janice Abel, jabel@arcweb.com, is Principal Consultant at ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass.

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