Helping to Ease the Experience Gap

Emerson’s Pete Sharpe, an advanced automation consultant, was recently interviewed for a magazine article on the subject of process manufacturers’ aging workforce. Manufacturers primarily in North America and Western Europe are feeling this loss of experience due to retirement.

Pete indicated that the reoccurring theme he hears is the loss of deep process knowledge. This knowledge, possessed by experienced operators, maintenance technicians and senior automation engineers is knowing when something in the process is not quite right, like when a measurement reading looks off, or when the process behavior is not the same. As seasoned operators retire, manufacturers feel this loss of experience most during non-normal conditions like startup, shutdown, or emergency situations.

Problems take longer to diagnose and resolve which can lead to less stable, more dangerous conditions. A recent refinery accident is one example where the problem diagnosis did not occur soon enough. You don’t ever hear about most incidents but they certainly cost manufacturers money and often result in close calls that don’t actually shut down a unit.

Pete discussed a couple of things automation suppliers are doing to address these issues. The first is improved operator training simulators, which I have written about in earlier blog posts. In this environment, less experienced operators can be challenged with operating problem situations so that they can improve their ability to diagnose the process and respond more quickly to abnormal situations.

As technologies continue to advance, more diagnostic capabilities are available in smart field devices and other plant assets. These devices can provide early warning about their own health and about the surrounding process. These predictive capabilities improve the ability of the maintenance organization to prioritize and respond to critical equipment alerts. Emerson’s Abnormal Situation Prevention (ASP) algorithm uses process statistical signature data to give less experienced operators more time to react to abnormal situations and more diagnostic information to point to the root cause of the abnormal situation.

The final advancements that help to close the experience gap are advanced control technologies. As the technology has gotten increasingly scalable and easier to deploy in control systems like the DeltaV system, more and more processes can be operated as units and not as collections of loops. These APC technologies operate a process unit within its equipment constraints, at its most economical point. The operator’s role changes from constantly adjusting individual loops to setting targets and constraint limits. APC applications are especially useful for process units that are tricky to run by less experienced operators–where many of the loops interact with one another or the process is highly constrained.

These advancements help ease the learning curve for future operators, maintenance technicians and automation engineers. On the positive side, today’s engineers and young operators are nearly all computer-literate, so they can make good use of the modern tools and work processes that come with today’s control infrastructure. This computer-savvy generation is more likely to adapt to computer-based control systems and modern fieldbus architectures. In addition, automation suppliers like Emerson are helping to ease this knowledge gap by having people like Pete and the other advanced automation consultants available to work with process manufacturers.

2 comments

  1. I too am optimistic about the abilities of our Gen Y Engineers. They are adaptable, quick to learn, and innovative. Combine this with good training programs such as what you offer at Ed Services along with 3rd-Generation MiMiC Process Simulation Software and a DeltaV control system, and the “Skills Gap” will no longer seem to be a crisis.
    Gen Y Engineers are more “computer savvy” as you say, with more software knowledge and exposure to technology and innovation than the engineers of 40 years ago.
    Here at MYNAH Technologies, in developing 3rd-generation MiMiC process simulation software for industrial plants to stay competitive and productive, some of our young engineers and developers have made some incredible contributions. We have a couple of the world’s leading simulation experts and industrial data communications experts on staff who are great resources and who lead and manage this team well. Nonetheless, the efficiency, innovativeness, and speed of our younger engineers and developers is phenomenal.
    My much younger brother, Travis Covington, is another example. A recent graduate of Cal Poly at Pomona, his creativity and design abilities as a manufacturing/design engineer are mind boggling. He has several years of experience designing and building robots for competitive teams and NASA alike, winning awards and competitions for his innovations. I am about 15 years older, but even as an older Gen Xer, I feel like a slower generation in picking up new technologies.
    I am not worried about the “Skills Gap” or any deficiency in Gen Y Engineers. I have seen some of the work they can do.Please join us at the 2008 Emerson Global Users Exchange, where I am going to present on this topic in more depth:

    http://www.emersonexchange.org/2008TechConference/hoteltravel.html

    http://www.mynah.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=265&PN=1

    Skills Gap Fix: 3rd-Gen Simulation and Operator Training
    Presenter: Jason Covington
    Session ID: 458
    Type: Workshop
    Track: 8. Control System Modernization

    Abstract Breakdown: Industry bloggers have written about the skills gap crisis in the process industry, saying that as much as 50% of skilled operators will retire in the next 5-7 years, leaving a wide chasm of knowledge transfer in operating and maintaining automation systems. Solutions to this skills gap include recruitment, automation upgrades and modernization, and implementing third-generation offline simulation that incorporates operator training and testing from the start.

    Our director, Martin Berutti, will be speaking on a parallel topic and how the powerful combination of DeltaV Simulate and MiMiC can make plant operations easier.

    Architecting Simulation Systems for DeltaV
    Presenter: Martin Berutti
    Session ID: 516
    Type: Workshop
    Track: 10. Emerson Product/Service Updates

    Abstract Breakdown
    There is a compelling business case for the use of simulation systems to reduce cost and compress the schedule on capital projects as well as reducing ongoing operations costs. Enhances to the DeltaV Simulate Product Family and MiMiC Simulation Software has made the process of developing simulations systems for control system testing, validation, and operator training easier than ever. This paper will focus on the enhancements to these products, proven best implementation practices, and future trends of the technology.

    Jason Covington
    Communications Manager
    MYNAH Technologies
    http://www.mynah.com

  2. Jason, Thanks for your comment. I look forward to catching your and Martin’s presentations at the Emerson Exchange.
    Take it easy,
    Jim

Leave a Reply