Achieving Success in Operator Training Simulation

By Rick Rys

Technology Trends

Simulation based training can be highly effective for training operators. It is unthinkable for a pilot to learn how to fly without using a training simulator. A training simulator is essential for both commercial and military pilots. The same goes for nuclear power plant operators, who are required to train on a simulator. A common denominator in both cases is the high consequences of operator mistakes. Training by doing with realistic simulation has been established as the most effective training method for complex processes with complex control systems.

Simulation Based Training Helps Avoid Accidents

While there are many benefits for using simulation based training methods, avoiding accidents is typically very high on the list for high consequence units. Three-mile island operators agonized to understand the instrument readings of their reactor, Chernobyl plant operators tried an innovative new start-up method that exposed design flaws resulting in the most expensive industrial accident in history. The Bhopal accident was worse, killing 8000 people within two weeks and injured 560,000 many with permanent injuries. These accidents exposed deficiencies in training of the operators and the technical staff that were involved. Building and verifying a realistic simulator requires the process is understood at a fundamental level and can be expressed mathematically. Operators need to constantly understand the current state of their process and the outcome of their actions. Observing the response on an accurate simulator is essential when practicing on the real process is not a viable option.

Simulation Based training (Source EON).png

Simulation based training (Photo from EON)

Training for Console and Field Operators

Consider the extensive use of simulation based training for space flight. Astronauts are pre-qualified and train in full scale simulators for extensive periods of time with a rigorous regimen of failure scenarios. The mission success depends on this training. It is very common for nuclear training simulators to include full scale control room mock-ups with simulation that includes full nucleonics modeling of reactor meltdown. The advantage of simulation based training is that it can bring familiarity to situations that rarely happen. In nuclear and process plants operator training must include both console training and training of field operations. Most plants have console and field operators that work together as a team. Simulation based training of console operators is well established but there are many new developments that can make simulator construction and operation more efficient. Training field operators has also seen many new developments where both console and field operators can participate in simulation exercises to practice the important communications and coordination skills.

Simulations Require Support and Maintenance

Simulation based training is very common on greenfield projects. Where CAD models are available simulation often includes 3D spatial simulations. History shows there is a tendency for expensive simulations to quickly fall in to disuse. In our IoT world with ever more digitalization there is an increased expectation to maintain lifecycle models and keep a digital twin of the process plant alive for multiple uses not just for operator training. Digital twin modelling can be used for control system testing, process analysis, process design changes, and optimization of operations in addition to uses for training operators, supervisors, and technical staff. New tools and techniques are increasing the deployment of simulation based training in brownfield plant. Top tier companies have that have a solid engineering understanding of their processes are more likely to deploy simulation based training and use process and control system models to improve process operation and to better understand how to make process design changes.

Top tier companies that operate process or nuclear power plants manage their simulation based training to maximize effectiveness and achieve a return on investment. There are several business models and partnership arrangements between end users, software suppliers, consultants, and systems integrators. Building and maintaining the simulations can be expensive, but as ARC has often discussed in past publications, there are many benefits and methods to compute them. Many process plants see frequent modifications of process equipment, instrumentation and control strategies. Simulations can quickly fall behind the running plant and become obsolete unless there is a support strategy. The control system engineers will always play a key role in keeping simulations synchronized with the running plant. Companies that operate multiple plants at different locations will often use central engineering resources and may be able to organize corporate agreements for certain maintenance and support functions for software, technical service and IT with cyber security support. Simulations contain valuable intellectual property so deployments on local networks or cloud servers require some planning to insure security.

Operator Training Can Use Various Simulation Techniques

There are a range of techniques for operator training. Classroom training, web based training, and “on the job” training play important roles. There are a range of simulation technologies that are useful for operator training, such as generic process simulations often used to train new operators on basic technologies. Simulators used for FAT (Factory Acceptance Testing) of the control system can be very basic and simulations such as these are often used for operator training. There are also training techniques that allow the console operator to use a simulator and train together with field operators that are roaming the actual process. Many plants practice emergency procedural operations like a man-down simulation where a rescue is simulated with victim actors. Simulation can take many forms.

ARC has been studying operator training and simulation based training approaches for decades, and is currently conducting a survey to clarify how industry is approaching simulation based training best practices. We encourage you to take this survey if you are involved with operator training as a supplier or as an end user. All survey participants will receive a summary of the survey results and all participants will remain confidential. This survey is also posted on the ARC web site at Training operators is a major investment. We hope surveys like this will help us to understand how end users are finding the best practices to achieve a return on that investment.

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