Systems Integration / HMI / Optimization

Simulator training boosts competence, confidence

Better trained operators can help increase plant safety, reduce start-up time and the number of unplanned shutdowns.

By Keith Larson

Your most seasoned operators are an indispensable source of operational insight. As such, their role in orienting new operators to an unfamiliar process is not to be underestimated. Indeed, "on-the-board" training with more experienced operators remains the dominant methodology for operator training used in the process industries today (see figure).

But training on the real process does have real limitations—especially when it comes to dealing with abnormal situations that you hope the actual process never goes through. The same goes for occasional planned activities, such as plant shutdowns and start-ups, which today happen increasingly infrequently as companies push for ever higher asset utilization rates. And the ongoing retirement of experienced operators has only made this situation worse. 

Integration Key to Realism

Like the flight simulators airlines use to train pilots in routine tasks and not-so-routine eventualities, high fidelity process simulators are used by a growing number of process manufacturers to ensure operator competence and to instill confidence in dealing with both the planned and unexpected. A training platform that is closely integrated with a plant's operations platform makes it possible to closely replicate process behavior and response within a safe, simulated environment.

High resolution training simulators present an added benefit in that new ways of controlling the process can be shaken down prior to implementation. New code, new control scenarios and new approaches to user interface design can all be tested and tweaked in a realistic environment a step removed from the actual process.

Better trained operators can help increase overall plant safety, reduce start-up time as well as the number of unplanned shutdowns. With a simulator, process operators and instrument technicians can learn to master the process in a safe and realistic environment. A simulator is also a powerful tool for engineering testing and optimization studies to improve productivity and energy savings. Trained operators and tested process control result in higher returns as both product quality and productivity are improved.

Tight integration of a simulator with the actual plant control system leads to the most faithful representation of process performance—both initially and over time. The ABB System 800xA Simulator, for example, uses the same engineering data, visualization and control logic as the System 800xA environment, but connected to a dynamic process model. This means that the simulation environment more precisely reflects the control system's real-world performance, and is much easier to maintain as changes are made. In addition to being able to simulate the various functions of the control system, it supports essential simulator functions for training purposes, including the ability to set initial conditions, capture snap shots and freeze/resume process dynamics.

Simulation's Real ROI

For a new plant, use of an operator training simulator can contribute to shorter initial start-up, better operator performance and help to prevent trips and incidents. It allows the testing of operational procedures and the tweaking of display and control strategies before initial start-up, when changes are always easier and less risky to make. Further, an integrated simulation environment provides a platform for optimization studies and knowledge capture.

And while the direct benefit of using a training simulator is difficult to quantify, a recent survey by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) indicated an average yearly saving of about $4,500 per megawatt of generating capacity. These savings are attributed to reduced training costs, improvements in plant availability, fewer environmental excursions and reduced damage to equipment. A little bit of math indicates a three-month payback for the typical power generation facility and begs the question: In what scenario would you not invest in a training simulator?