Operator Training Simulators’ Importance Confirmed by End User Presentations at ARC Industry Forum

By Rick Rys

ARC Report Abstract


ARC Advisory Group research indicates that most high-fidelity operator training simulators applied to date have been in either nuclear power plants or on highly automated processes with the potential for high-consequence failures.  The latter category includes plants in the chemical, refining, and other process industries. However, ARC is also aware that the owner-operators of many high-consequence process facilities have not implemented simulation-based training programs and thus may be missing the significant operational and safety benefits of simulation-based training.

Just as it is critical to train airplane pilots in realistic situations, it is important for the operators of a complex industrial process to understand how to take prompt and effective action in abnormal situations such as the failure of process or automation equipment.  These situations cannot be recreated on the running process to train operators, since this could be quite hazardous and disrupt operations.  Also, while classroom- or web-based training can help; evidence suggests that these approaches are much less effective than simulation-based training, particularly when it comes to capturing and transferring the soon-to-be-departing knowledge of the current workforce.

It's well understood that pilots sometimes must respond quickly to events (consider that the pilots of the Boeing 737 Max passenger jets that crashed with fatal consequences had just a 40-second window in which to override the automated MCAS system).  Many plant situations also require fast response based on an accurate understanding of the equipment they are operating in the appropriate context.  A surging compressor, flow reversal in an FCC, boiler drum level instability, or losing a cooling water pump on a nuclear reactor are situations that require prompt and effective action to avoid bad consequences.   

For an operator, understanding the chemistry and physics of a process is much like understanding aerodynamics for an aircraft pilot.  He or she must develop an accurate mental model of what will happen when specific actions are taken.

Why Use an Operator Training Simulators?

It is well established that simulation-based training is the most effective way to train console operators and test complex control and safety systems.  Emerging simulation technologies offer the potential to also increase the use of spatial simulation as part of the training program for field operators.

Operator Training Simulators Operator%2BTraining%2BSimulators.jpgThe refining and chemical industries were created by a unique generation of chemists, engineers, and scientists who stressed the need for thorough training for operators. As technology evolved, this included developing and using training simulators to convey process understanding. Large chemical companies, major refiners, and the nuclear industry were major innovators; creating accurate plant models for process design.  Some models were developed from pilot plant reactor systems. These steady-state design models led to high-fidelity dynamic simulators.

In the 1980s, we saw a major shift in process manufacturing in which technical staffs were reduced and the focus placed on reducing the overhead of process manufacturing.  As these plants took on new ownership and the competitive landscape intensified, expensive training simulators and the infrastructure to support them were given a lower priority.  This, despite the important safety-related benefits of training with simulation and many economic benefits that could be realized through improved plant operation and process evolution.

OTS Presentations at ARC Industry Forum

The presentations and associated panel discussions at this year’s ARC Industry Forum in Orlando, Florida showed that simulation-based training is alive and well but requires a well-planned program with management support.

LyondellBasell’s presentation showed how the company captures the know-how of retiring process experts.  Axens North America showed how the company uses its extensive chemistry, catalyst, and process expertise to improve safety, process performance, and response time to situations.  Georgia Tech provided some insights from its research on novel cyber-attacks and defenses for ICS, including training operators to detect cyber threats.

The speaker from the Process Control, Dynamics, and Analysis Group in DuPont’s Engineering Technology Center described that organization’s “flight simulator” approach for a chemical process and described why and when they use first-principle dynamic models for their virtual plant models. 

The OTS group leader from Reliance Industries Limited provided some insights on that company’s multi-faceted approach to simulation-based operator training at its world-scale Jamnagar Refinery Complex. This approach incorporates a mix of high-fidelity, generic, and plant-specific operator training simulators, as appropriate.  The goal is to “enhance the operator proficiency, knowledge, and confidence required to operate and handle emergency situations.”  Ultimately, the company would like to implement and maintain appropriate OTS at every one of its plant sites.  Significantly, Reliance recognizes the need to upgrade its OTS continuously and “monitor its effective utilization for operator training and other simulation study applications.”

OTS Provides Needed Confidence

Console operators need to “feel” the plant first hand.  Complex APC and advanced regulatory control systems can outperform the best operator, but simulation can give operators a chance to test their skills to see what happens when they move a valve or stop a motor.  Operators need to be confident that they can take over when complex controls misbehave, but also recognize when it’s best to keep them in automatic mode.  Console and field operators alike need to learn how to work through startup, transitions, upsets, and shutdown scenarios so they can perform them smoothly and safely.

Console operators need to understand and navigate the DCS/PLC and safety system functions.  DCS and SCADA HMI can be complex with invisible text, pop-up menus, and rarely used displays. A set of realistic plant scenarios, including abnormal situations, will allow the operator to use every HMI function and learn special DCS/SCADA functions such as the current and historical alarms, trending, reporting, and system health functions that are useful should I/O, controllers, communications, or HMI functions misbehave or fail.

Plant models or “digital twins” developed by real process experts can help retain and transfer valuable expertise to the newer console and field operators.  The digital twin models can be static or dynamic high-fidelity process models; dynamic control system models running on a simple PC; or 3D spatial models created from CAD drawings, LIDAR scans, or even photos taken with smartphones using recently developed digital algorithms.  Generic models can provide basic understanding of common unit operations, like a pump, fired heater, or distillation column. These were some of the interpretations of “digital twin” we saw at this year’s Forum.

Implementing OTS in Today’s Plants

Even if a plant or enterprise no longer has the internal expertise needed to model processes, simulate the control system, or create plant spatial models; many technology suppliers are available and willing to supplement the available internal expertise.  The use of skilled contractors, process experts, and systems integrators could help compensate for lean staffing in the control system, process engineering, and training groups.

While the nuclear industry uses realistic simulation-based training and has widely adopted the ANSI 3.5 standard, there is no such standard for using simulators in the refining or chemical industries. The best practices for the refining and chemical industries are different, but appropriate modeling and simulation are clearly desirable.

The refining and chemical industry can implement simulation-based training without the expensive and time-consuming formalities required by the nuclear power industry.  The important thing is to plan and manage the operator training program and use and maintain the process models developed for operator training simulation for multiple purposes (including process optimization) across the life of the plant.

Justifying Operator Training Simulators

The cost of a simulation-based training program is significant, but the ultimate cost of a major fire or accident, particularly one that results in serious injury, is likely to be many times more expensive in both dollars and cents terms and in damage to a company’s reputation.  While there’s no guarantee that simulation-based training would prevent such an accident, it would certainly help do so and be a key part of a company’s subsequent insurance and/or damage or injury litigation strategy.

The main question to ask is how to structure your operator training program. In a running plant, this is an OPEX budget and thus must contribute a return on investment and provide value to the operation. What kind of technologies are the best investment?  What other benefits could you get out of a training simulator? How could you use the process model to optimize processes, improve operation, increase production and yields, reduce utility costs, and/or improve asset management?

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Keywords: Operator Training Simulator (OTS), Console Operator, Field Operator, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Digital Twin, ARC Advisory Group.


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