Process simulators aren't just for training

From design to startup and beyond, operator training simulators certainly appear to be worth all the trouble, especially since they can save time and money throughout a process plant's entire lifecycle.

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Process SimulationBy Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

AT ONE TIME, the major purpose of a process simulator was to train operators. Simulation technology has come a long way since then. Today, simulators are beneficial during a plant’s entire lifecycle from initial design through construction, control system development and startup, and onward, all the way to replacing the control system many years down the road.

Barry Hu, a process engineer at Genencor International in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is using Mimic simulation software from Mynah Technologies to ease his facility’s update. "Mimic has been a tremendous troubleshooting and training tool for us as we migrate our automation platform from RS3 to DeltaV," he says. The plant produces industrial enzymes using fermentation. "By using Mimic to simulate our fermentation batch processes, I was able to detect problems in batch programming and control algorithms that would have caused production loss. The operators were comfortable with the new system because they trained on Mimic for three months before it came online. We were prepared to dump three batches during the start-up, anticipating glitches in the new system and the new programs. We dumped none. Mimic simulation cut our start-up time by at least three days, and saved us tens of thousand dollars in raw material and utility costs."

Simulation pays for itself, it seems. “Process simulation can be applied through each significant stage in a project’s lifecycle,” says Mike Lane, an engineer with Autopro Automation Consultants, a systems integrator in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada. “Through a series of successive steps, from concept and design through training and operation of the process, simulation can generate return on investment. The cumulative effect of ongoing cost savings and improved operating rate can be substantial, and typically returns the initial simulation investment within the first year of operation. It will continue to contribute to our profitability on an annual basis.”

Simulation Progress
“Simulators used to be just for training operators,” says Gregory McKim, director of operator training simulators and services for SimSci-Esscor. “Today, a simulator is often part of a larger project, usually a DCS upgrade, where not just operators need training, but I&C personnel as well. In addition, part of the drive for simulators is their control checkout capability. This is often used as an economic justification for buying the simulator.”

The use of operator training simulators (OTSs) has increased in recent times, he adds. “Five to 10 years ago, every simulator project was for a plant that already had a well-established control system and operating procedure. Now, most DCS upgrade projects have a requirement for a simulator as part of the overall program.”

Sometimes simulation is required, says Glen, a control engineer with a major paper company. “We’re building a greenfield plant in Brazil, where the people who will be running it have zero experience,” he says. “There are half a dozen other mills in the region, and every one used simulators to train operators. So, when we contracted to buy a DCS for our new mill, we made simulation part of the deal.”

Patrick Rossi, process automation project manager at Mead Johnson in Zeeland, Mich., adds, “Our plant is very integrated, and somewhere around 50 production and clean-in-place process unit operations must function both synchronously and asynchronously. Work instructions are embedded in the control system to create a seamless operation. Quality assurance, field connections, and automated sensors are brought into the control system. Lean staffing forces us to use technology to help train people. Operators have standard operating procedures they must sign-off on before being allowed to work. Simulation gives us the means to prove that operators are trained in automation before they’re turned loose.”

Chuck Marsh, senior project engineer at Siemens Energy and Automation, says several trends are driving increased use of simulators. “Because of the Brain Drain, many of a plant’s most knowledgeable resources from operations, maintenance, and engineering are transitioning out of the workforce,” he says. “Operators are being asked to do more with less formalized training time, and there is pressure on engineering personnel to reduce costs, avoid unplanned downtime, minimize disruptions to the process, and reduce installation and commissioning times.”

“We’re witnessing significant growth in customers using simulations,” says Jim Siemers, educational services manager at Emerson Process Management. “As customers examine their businesses for profit opportunities, they’re increasingly looking toward operational efficiency. Simulation technology provides measurable results.”

Training is still the crux of the matter, he adds. “Operators have received more interest in the last few years. Knowledgeable plant and production managers realize the importance of simulation in the design and implementation phases of their projects, and so they’re training their operators on scenarios and procedures to reduce incidents related to operational errors. Our customers want a process-specific simulation operated with their graphics and courseware to help educate their entire staff, not just operators. A recent customer used its DeltaV OTS purchase to train its entire operations department to facilitate effective communications throughout the department when discussing the process.”

Marsh says not everyone is convinced. “Orders typically come from companies that have already incorporated simulation into their production lifecycle,” he says. “For companies that haven’t yet discovered the benefits of simulation, the seemingly higher upfront cost is often a major obstacle. In some cases, simulation capabilities are added to a project as an afterthought. Unfortunately this typically doesn’t result in the best ROI.”

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