How can you leverage digitalization for employee training and knowledge transfer?

By Malika Nait Oukhedou, Business Development Manager for Digitalization & Services

Digitalization in the chemical industry is progressing slower than in other, more digitally mature industries – like ICT or telecommunications, for instance. Yet, in recent years, a significant transformation has already occurred, with digitalization playing an important role in streamlining operations and boosting the efficiency of chemical manufacturing plants. A newly built – grassroots – plant typically already has a computerized Distributed Control System (DCS), making it easier to digitalize the plant further.

Unless plants become fully automated, which seems years – if not decades – away, they will be managed and operated by people. That's why Human Resources (HR) topics, such as effective employee training and knowledge transfer, are top of mind when it comes to plant digitalization.

Knowledge transfer

Population aging is a growing trend, with the World Health Organization estimating that the proportion of the global population aged 60 and over will nearly double between 2015 and 20501. The average age of chemical plant operators – currently, most operators are in their 40s – could also increase over the years, as it is typically more challenging to attract younger plant operators to work in plants located in remote, less populated areas.

Older operators have a wealth of valuable knowledge and experience, but as they get close to retirement, retaining this knowledge within the organization becomes more difficult. Commonly, this is done through mentorship programs, where new engineers or operators are assigned a more experienced mentor to guide them through the initial stages of their training. Mentorship plays an important role because it can be challenging for a new hire, especially without expertise in a similar role, to understand existing information and figure out the right questions to ask.

Stami Digital

After plant managers and experienced operators retire or leave the company, labor costs for hiring and training new employees can be high. It usually takes three to five years for new urea or ammonia plant operators or process engineers to learn the ins and outs of their jobs and become fully independent. A long training period for operators partially stems from the increased reliability of current chemical plants, resulting in fewer emergencies or unplanned shutdowns. Especially when plants operate longer intervals between turnarounds, this can become a bottleneck for proper training on non-regular operating modes, such as shutdown, startup and upset conditions. Furthermore, as employees commonly work in shifts, the chances of a specific operator experiencing every possible situation in the plant are minimal.

This is where digital tools like an Operator Training Simulator (OTS) can significantly speed up and enhance operator training and knowledge transfer. The OTS realistically simulates various scenarios in the plant, allowing to observe, test and train operator response, track employee progress, and identify areas for additional training or support. Compared to conventional training, an OTS helps bring new operators up to speed on startup, shutdown and daily plant operation much quicker. It can also be a useful tool for operators experienced in running the plant, helping them keep their knowledge of scenarios outside of normal operation up to date. Furthermore, operators can repeat a particular scenario as many times as necessary without interfering with actual plant operation.

OTS setup

Existing operator knowledge is recorded and stored through different training scenarios, where every trainee's approach might vary slightly. Sharing this experience between employees makes collaborating and solving problems easier, determining best practices and increasing productivity. Trainees who encounter complex situations in real life are better equipped to resolve them based on their simulator training and experience exchange.

Emergency scenarios

A lot of operator training is done on the job, but this is not always possible – you don't want to train an emergency in a real plant where the consequences can endanger plant staff and equipment. However, while operators might be equipped to deal with emergencies theoretically, applying this knowledge in practice is not always straightforward.

Emergency shutdowns in fertilizer plants, depending on the problem, could result in unsafe situations and production losses. That's why practicing emergencies in a safe environment using the OTS is critical. Furthermore, on-the-job training opportunities are limited as training on start-up and shutdown of the plant cannot take place during plant operation. The simulator is also a great tool for learning the interlock system in practice, providing knowledge that cannot easily be acquired by studying diagrams. As a result, it becomes a valuable tool for effectively training operators at any time.

To illustrate this, think about pilots training to fly a plane. First, they train extensively in a flight simulator before stepping into the cabin of a real plane. Then, they regularly refine their knowledge with additional training to maintain their skills. Many people depend on pilots to safely reach their destinations, and a severe emergency could have dire consequences.

Similarly, the safety of the staff in a chemical plant and the safety of people living in surrounding areas depend on safe plant operation. Aside from safety, economic aspects also play a role. In case of emergency shutdowns, after which it takes an average of three days to restart production, financial losses can be significant. It can make a big difference if training on the OTS can prevent such situations.

Urea synthesis OTS screenshot

Implementation

It might take time before the results of implementing digital solutions in the plant become noticeable, especially when it comes to employee training, which is a continuous investment. Having well-trained personnel results in a plant running more smoothly and efficiently, benefiting multiple stakeholders over a long time period. The implementation can start with a pilot project to help you identify the advantages of a tool like an OTS for your business.

Check out our podcast Stamitalks, where we interview Andreas Ackermann and Heiko Zweering from SKW Piesteritz urea plant on their use of the OTS: https://www.stamicarbon.com/stamitalks

 

Resources:

1) World Health Organization (October 1, 2022), Ageing and health: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ageing-and-health.