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Time for training: Five core advantages of having well-trained staff

Finding a couple of hours to train workers is tough, but the value is great and easy to measure

by Sharjeel Nawaz and Ahmed Habib, INTECH Process Automation

The advent of modern machines, sophisticated control, and seamless automation has historically been geared for one purpose: minimize human interaction. Recent developments have led to achievements like digitization of all controls, complex software and features for optimization, fool-proofing of systems and multiple layers of protection resulting in an almost fully automated plant. But even in a fully automated plant, the human element has not been eliminated entirely, even if only limited to observing operations and ensuring no abnormalities occur while possessing the ability to carry out remedial actions as soon as possible. Furthermore many routine tasks related to operations and most maintenance activities require a significant degree of human intervention in processes.

The advent of human machine interfaces (HMIs) and the advanced level of predictive modeling they have brought to a plant; has made a marked impact on the traditional approach of automating an unmanned plant. While most plants are operated on specific goals with tangible targets, the ulterior motive of any facility is to maximize the value it produces whether it’s from increase production or minimized overheads. However, the extent of success attributed to sophisticated automation system is still limited; ultimately it’s the operators who can make a difference between flawless performance and lagging key performance indicators (KPIs). A high level of performance however can effectively be achieved through personnel who have a high level of familiarity with their operating environments. The easiest way to establish that familiarity is through planned and scheduled trainings.

The importance of refresher training

Typically there are two major types of trainings: first-time trainings and refresher trainings periodically conducted to ensure knowledge retention and continued competence. Because of the nature of each plant and facility, there is no definite ruling on training options available to end users; there is however general consensus that the objective of any training should be to familiarize workers with their operating environment and ensure they are able to function optimally within that environment.

The importance of first-time training is significant for new hires, system upgrades or initiatives to meet certain compliance standards, but the significance of refresher or subsequent trainings is sometimes neglected by end users – fueled often by poor trainings, no way to measure return on investment (ROI), and insufficient planning. For example, when upgrading the entire control system of a plant, an end user may have relied on the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) standard off-site trainings for maintaining their control systems. The employees may have learned how to operate the new control system but without a complete understanding of how their installed system interacts with the plant environment, their effectiveness will be limited. What this ultimately results in is more support calls to OEMs and significant downtime.

If conducted and planned properly, trainings can bring about a significant increase in bottom line revenue and plant KPIs if all the dots are connected. Some of the core advantages of trainings and their ROI are highlighted below:

1. Building in-house expertise

For any end user, a major motivation for training employees is to build and maintain in-house expertise. This helps ensure that they have sufficient independence and control over their facilities. The biggest hurdles to training in-house operations and maintenance staff is the cost of training and the effect on productivity during training. Nearly all employees work on shifts, and for oil and gas staff that has been on site for 12 hours, the thought of going over-time for training can be both exhaustive and counter-productive. To avoid that, most end users have to plan trainings within employees’ operating shifts which of course lowers the amount of time they can spend on their jobs and reduces their overall concentration – or in the case of trainings with OEMs, they have to remove employees entirely from a facility for the duration of the training.

There is a simple way to work around this issue though. Since all plants do not operate at the same capacity at all times throughout a year – with periods of peak and periods of lull in operations – the time spent away from the facility on training can be significantly less problematic if trainings are planned during periods of low activity.

2. Lower reliance on external staff

Generally, following any major system installation or upgrade, the OEM or system integrator responsible for the project tends to take up operations and maintenance of the site. Based on how quickly the customer trains their own staff, if they choose to do so at all, these O&M contracts can take up anywhere between a few weeks to years.

Having external resources manage operations is fairly convenient, but their load on the bottom line is quite significant. Especially in the current oil and gas market, where the year-long declining market prices have sent end users brushing every corner to cut down on costs, having external staff for operations and maintenance is a major cause for concern. With in-house staff working on operations and maintenance, the need to keep high-paid external expertise is significantly reduced.

Another issue with external expertise is the scope of their work. While staff provided by system integrators are generally more convenient as resident engineers and willing to work beyond the scope of their installed systems, OEM staff generally prefer working on their own systems, especially if the system needing attention is from another OEM. Trained employees can overcome these limitations and work on all systems in the plant to ensure smooth operation, this helps reduce the risks of failure and saves critical revenue which would have otherwise been consumed by expensive external staff. Having invested in training staff can help cut down these costs, especially in revenue-critical situations and ensure a greater degree of control and self-reliance in operating plants and facilities.

3. Quicker response time

For any plant, one of the greatest threats after physical disasters and damage is shutdown. The longer a plant stays down, the more losses it continuously accumulates. Sometimes even the simplest issues and minor nuances like a faulty alarm or failing sensor can cause a shutdown.

For non-resident / on-call maintenance contracts, the typical response time is 12-48 hours. For remote facilities, the response time can be as much as 72 hours. Imagine the horror of waiting 72 hours at a remote gas station, suffering surmounting loss in production, only to have the support staff come in and find a pressure transmitter disconnected.

With trained staff, tracing faults and troubleshooting problems is a significant advantage which can help iron out minor issues to bring the plant back online within just a few hours. Even if the problem at hand is beyond the scope of the staff’s competency, with basic expertise they are in a much better position to avail remote/telephonic support from OEMs to quicken up the remedy. If replacement parts are required, the timely recognition can save procurement time as well. Without trained staff, the time required to bring a facility back online can take up to many more days which nets a huge loss in profitability in periods of peak production.

With modern tools like condition-based monitoring and preventive maintenance, trained staff are in an even more favorable position to detect potential failures and issues and work on remedying them before any failures occur, effectively saving the shutdown and maintenance costs by large margins.

4. Facility performance and valuation

An often less-noticed but significant advantage for end users is the increase in value of a facility that is well maintained. Slumps in the oil and gas markets, like the one currently plighting the global market, is prime time for a lot of mergers and acquisitions by key industry players. In events like this, a facility that has had negligible down time, has its own trained staff and has been well-maintained is bound to be a significant asset and adds great value to its end user. This not only helps increase the estimated value to the end user, it also sends a strong message about their self-reliance and commitment to performance.

5. Succession planning

Although it seems daunting to go through the effort of building and maintaining expertise, another key advantage is having the expertise and capability to conduct internal trainings without going through the trouble of external trainings each time there’s a need for quick refreshers or change in staff. In addition to saving the cost of trainings, succession plans are easier to make as trainings and handovers can be performed in-house with flexibility.

Trainings are also a significant factor in determining progression for employees and performance evaluations. Only through trainings and certifications can an end user be sufficiently satisfied about the level of expertise of an employee which would otherwise be harder to evaluate.

Training with OEMs or system integrators

There are distinct advantages and disadvantages with choosing the trainer and the method of training. Trainings are conducted either on-site or at trainers’ facilities. On-site trainings have the advantage of remaining on-site where the trainee staff is still available to respond to any requirements at the plant. Moreover the training can be conducted at a time when it’s easier for the end user to take some time out for employee training. The main problem with on-site trainings is the lack of concentration and greater effort required to train since there are numerous distractions at a plant for an on-shift employee. Additionally the lack of extensive training systems and in-depth simulators makes the operators learn about certain situations like a blowout preventer (BOP) failure or a high risk fire hazard only in theory with no chance to practically train then on a live system.

For trainings conducted at trainers’ facilities, the main advantages are a higher level of concentration due to fewer distractions and hands on experience on multiple scenarios through training simulators. The disadvantage of course is the time spent away from the plant which could be crucial if the training is conducted at a fixed time and the trainees have to leave during peak operations for the training.

OEMs tend to have much more sophisticated simulation and training systems at their facilities and can provide a high detail of experience and expertise on their systems, ensuring that trained employees are in a position to handle any situation on these systems. On the down side, OEMs tend to avoid any interaction with systems from other vendors and OEMs which requires additional training from other OEMs to learn about all systems. OEMs also tend to conduct trainings according to their fixed training calendars and charge extra for specialized individual trainings. System Integrators on the other hand are much more flexible about training timings as they usually provide specialized situation-specific trainings to each end user. Moreover, with their vendor-neutral approach, they can provide trainings on the entire plant environment to help familiarize trainees with their surroundings and have a better understanding of their operations. The lack of simulations and in-depth details however can leave gaps in learning about specific situations.

Whatever methods and types of training are employed, at the end there is no denying that a well-planned and thought out training plan can help end users, especially in the oil and gas industry, make the best use of their resources and reap significant returns both in terms of significantly lower long-term operating costs and better life of assets through reduced failures and lower down times.

This article was originally published on Plant Engineering and Control Engineering, INTECH Process Automation’s content partners. 

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