Helping to Ease the Experience Gap

Emerson’s Pete Sharpe, an advanced automation consultant, was recently interviewed for a magazine article on the subject of process manufacturers’ aging workforce. Manufacturers primarily in North America and Western Europe are feeling this loss of experience due to retirement.

Pete indicated that the reoccurring theme he hears is the loss of deep process knowledge. This knowledge, possessed by experienced operators, maintenance technicians and senior automation engineers is knowing when something in the process is not quite right, like when a measurement reading looks off, or when the process behavior is not the same. As seasoned operators retire, manufacturers feel this loss of experience most during non-normal conditions like startup, shutdown, or emergency situations.

Problems take longer to diagnose and resolve which can lead to less stable, more dangerous conditions. A recent refinery accident is one example where the problem diagnosis did not occur soon enough. You don’t ever hear about most incidents but they certainly cost manufacturers money and often result in close calls that don’t actually shut down a unit.

Pete discussed a couple of things automation suppliers are doing to address these issues. The first is improved operator training simulators, which I have written about in earlier blog posts. In this environment, less experienced operators can be challenged with operating problem situations so that they can improve their ability to diagnose the process and respond more quickly to abnormal situations.

As technologies continue to advance, more diagnostic capabilities are available in smart field devices and other plant assets. These devices can provide early warning about their own health and about the surrounding process. These predictive capabilities improve the ability of the maintenance organization to prioritize and respond to critical equipment alerts. Emerson’s Abnormal Situation Prevention (ASP) algorithm uses process statistical signature data to give less experienced operators more time to react to abnormal situations and more diagnostic information to point to the root cause of the abnormal situation.

The final advancements that help to close the experience gap are advanced control technologies. As the technology has gotten increasingly scalable and easier to deploy in control systems like the DeltaV system, more and more processes can be operated as units and not as collections of loops. These APC technologies operate a process unit within its equipment constraints, at its most economical point. The operator’s role changes from constantly adjusting individual loops to setting targets and constraint limits. APC applications are especially useful for process units that are tricky to run by less experienced operators–where many of the loops interact with one another or the process is highly constrained.

These advancements help ease the learning curve for future operators, maintenance technicians and automation engineers. On the positive side, today’s engineers and young operators are nearly all computer-literate, so they can make good use of the modern tools and work processes that come with today’s control infrastructure. This computer-savvy generation is more likely to adapt to computer-based control systems and modern fieldbus architectures. In addition, automation suppliers like Emerson are helping to ease this knowledge gap by having people like Pete and the other advanced automation consultants available to work with process manufacturers.