Getting employee training right

In our April cover story, Senior Tech Editor Dan Hebert, PE, talks about the state of the art in training for the automation profession and how it is evolving to fit the needs of process control end users.

By Dan Hebert

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“Post-training program assessment testing plays a vital role in the entire experience and becomes the roadmap for future training. It’s planned up-front, before training development begins, and ensures that pre- and post-training analysis will provide a true measure of the success of the training.

“By assessing the learners in the analysis phase as well as after training, success can be measured. Most important, we can be certain we have met our client’s goals.”

The University Approach

Carlos Tavora, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., talks about his school’s automation training efforts.

Control: How does your university train its students for careers in automation?

Tavora: At Gonzaga, we offer “Automation” as a senior elective for computer, electrical and mechanical engineers. Students must have a solid understanding of engineering fundamentals as a prerequisite, so they can fully understand the impact that automation has on manufacturing processes, equipment operation, safety, production costs and plant cultures.

The automation course emphasizes the use of programmable controllers. The design principles presented evolve from simple to complex, and progress from ladder logic and instruction list to sequential function charts, function blocks and structured text. Students progress from a simple operator panel to designing an interactive graphic operator station.

In the lab, they learn how to implement and test control strategies. They start by programming a series of basic control algorithms, as well as operator stations, followed by project assignments related to more complex systems.

One of these projects involves developing control strategies for a conveyor with an item-dispensing hopper that fills containers of different sizes. Another project is controlling  a system that drills several holes into a part. This system has electro-pneumatic actuators, and provides students the opportunity to learn how to manage solenoid valves, pneumatic cylinders and associated sensors.

Control: What are the biggest automation training challenges you see?

Tavora: Conveying to students the importance of understanding the manufacturing process, how to take into account all safety issues, and how to design a system that’s appropriate for the education and experience of operators and maintenance personnel.

Control: Besides increased productivity, what benefits can a company realize from training its employees?

Tavora: Employees are in general more satisfied when they have some control over the environment of their work. Enabling employees to understand manufacturing processes and how they can test different control strategies through simulation can increase job satisfaction and provide innovative control ideas. Greater awareness of safety procedures and a motivation to progress in the career ladder can also be fostered by training.

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