The Importance of “The Why” Before “The How” in Process Operations
The inside of a control room doesn’t look the same as it did 30 years ago. Not only are the controls vastly more automated, those operating the controls are changing out more frequently.
The stability of managing operations is now a programmatic problem of managing change, and plants are faced with finding solutions to manage this change. One possible solution is expanding operational insights more broadly, with more intensity, quicker to your organization. It starts by improving the fundamentals training, or “The Why” before “The How,” and engages the operator or your support staff with integrated simulation.
Part 1: Driving factors behind the need for better fundamentals understanding
Let’s take a look at the factors driving an industry-wide need for a better understanding of the fundamentals of plant processes, increased automation and a lack of experience.
How increased automation necessitates fundamentals focus
According to a study by North Carolina State University and SA Technologies Inc., when you take the human out of the control loop, you increase the potential for “vigilance decrements, complacency and loss of situational awareness.” The study notes:
“Out of the loop performance problems are characterized by a decreased ability of the human operator to intervene in system control loops and assume manual control when needed in overseeing automated systems. First, human operators acting as monitors have problems in detecting system errors and performing tasks manually in the event of automation failures…In addition to delays in detecting that a problem has occurred, operators may require a significant period of time to reorient themselves to the current state of the system after a failure and develop sufficient understanding of the state in order to act appropriately.”1
While automation is great for increased productivity, certain situations require a fundamental understanding of what’s happening and why. A transmitter failure could provide an incorrect indication. Without a true understanding of what’s happening in the plant, your operator might not know how to look at alternative indications.
Experience is retiring. New operators need to be competent as fast as possible.
The “Graying” of the work force is well documented, perhaps more so in the oil and gas field. While your experienced operators may have spent years at the plant getting to know all of the intricacies of the equipment and systems, your new operators need to hit the ground running. You don’t have the luxury of time to gain experience.
These new operators might have entered the workforce straight out of high school or vocational training and lack an in-depth understanding of plant systems. Now it’s your job to ensure that these green recruits become competent and autonomous workers as quickly as possible.
Even if their first assignments are as outside operators, having access to tutorials and simulations will give them a better understanding of their job and better prepare them for board operations.
Part 2: Tutorials and Simulations – a one-two punch
Simulators are great tools to practice and gain experiential learning in a fail-safe environment. But to make the sessions even more productive, students need to understand the concepts behind the operations before trying to implement them.
Why use tutorials as a prep for the simulator sessions?
Plant unit simulators can be very complicated, as they mimic the controls that operators will use in the actual plant. Before diving too deep into practicing operations, trainees should have a thorough understanding of plant processes, components, and key operating principles.
Such understanding helps ensure composure and rational decisions during startup, shutdown, normal operations, and troubleshooting activities. As a first step, tutorial training allows the simulation to be a practical reinforcement of what was previously learned.
Also, consider that your simulator and simulator instructors are some of your most valuable training assets. You want to maximize the return on those assets as much as possible. You can do that by ensuring your students grasp the fundamentals before they practice plant operations on the simulator.
In addition to onboarding or regularly scheduled training, users find that pre-job briefs using both the tutorial and the simulator greatly reduce risk before performing non-typical plant procedures.
Practical examples of tutorial/simulation combinations
We design our line of EnVision™ tutorials and simulations to work hand in hand to provide the maximum training benefit. Each of our tutorials follows a common chapter structure: Overview, Process Components, Principles of Operation, Key Controls, Startup Operation, Shutdown Operation, and Troubleshooting.
An understanding of the operations and how key components are controlled is necessary to truly understanding system behavior and how to troubleshoot issues or respond to changing market conditions. Learning these concepts ahead of time facilitates a more valuable simulator session.
For university and technical college programs as well as plants looking to train new “green” operators, our Basic Process Control Tutorial couples nicely with our Basic Process Fundamentals Simulation. The tutorial covers basic process units such as valves and flow, tanks and pumps, heat exchangers, and air coolers.
Seasoned instructors will have their students go through a chapter on one of these basic units in the tutorial and then practice learned concepts using the simulator. Following the tutorial, simulation is also beneficial for more complex models such as our Gas Oil Separation Process (GOSP) or Crude Distillation Unit (CDU).
Such complicated models are likely to be used for training and testing current operators with some experience or as an interview test to verify applicant’s skills. In either case, the self-paced tutorial enables users to review the concepts before instructor-led simulation sessions or simulator testing situations.
All around the industry plants are finding their operators need a better understanding of “The Why” behind the processes. Experienced workers are retiring and “green” recruits are coming in with no experience, or increased automation has bred complacency in their workforce. If their stories sound familiar, consider pre-simulation training with tutorials to teach “The Why” before “The How.”
 The effects of level of automation and adaptive automation on human performance, situation awareness and workload in a dynamic control task. David B Kaber, Department of Industrial Engineering NCSU, and Mica R Endsley, SA Technologies, Inc. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science 2003. https://people.engr.ncsu.edu/dbkaber/papers/Kaber_Endsley_TIES_04.pdf.