Solve the skills shortage and protect asset safety

Paul Boughton

Dr Paul Turner looks at how advanced process control can enhance safety across the process industries.

In the past, process engineering companies have benefited from access to experienced talent in the form of control/process engineers, operators and general IT staff. This situation is unlikely to continue for much longer. Thousands of engineers are on the brink of retirement and there is a lack of staff with the requisite expertise to replace them.

With companies looking at rationalising assets and markets pressurised, this situation is unlikely to get any better - at least not for the foreseeable future.

The problem is particularly serious in the chemicals, oil and gas sectors. According to The Society of Petroleum Engineers, the average age of a petroleum worker is 51 years old. Nearly 60 per cent are 45 or older.

This peak in the profile of workers suggests that approximately 40 per cent of the workforce will be lost over the next decade.

Keeping assets secure

The growing knowledge gap raises some serious issues and concerns when it comes to health and safety. The skills shortages issue needs to be addressed if companies also - are to come to terms with the growing problem of their maturing and sometimes decaying assets, which raise serious worries about their structural integrity.

Asset safety is brought into further jeopardy by high staff turnover, accelerating the rate of loss of knowledge about the way the asset works.

Skills shortages throughout the industry inevitably lead to greater use of third-party contractors who are unlikely to have the same level of familiarity and understanding as the original employees.

One of the main technical areas where there is a severe knowledge gap affecting both the oil & gas and the chemicals industries is advanced process control (APC). Over the past two decades, there have been nearly 20 000 APC implementations worldwide, many of which have been within traditional markets of refining and ethylene production.

Implementation strategies and 'tricks of the trade' have evolved over time and the pioneering veterans with 20+ years' experience are also facing retirement. Given the global nature of this business, these engineers are being replaced by lower cost staff with less experience.

This skills gap highlights why deploying process optimisation and decision support technology can have such an important role to play in facilitating automation of routine tasks and in allowing essential engineering skills to be deployed where they can be used most effectively and safely.

Sophisticated yet easy-to-use software suites are key in helping those new to the sector to assimilate the knowledge required to work on the aging assets from their highly experienced, retiring colleagues. It also provides sustainable engineering best practice to those already working at operational facilities and those aspiring to do so. In this way, technology is effectively used to help engineers to deploy their honed skills in areas where they are most required, such as informed decision-making.

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Learn, use, align

Software technology providers need to make sure that these applications are intuitive to learn and use and align to industry work practices, so that they can deliver benefit to the widest possible community within a business and not just act as the focal point for experts. This is reflected by the industry's experience with APC where vendors are increasingly tasked with either making sophisticated capability easier to use or adopting a more practical approach to implementation.

The key requirements are to improve the performance of the facility, embed knowledge into applications and provide performance management and advice to the operation.

The prospect of a significant loss of industry knowledge relating to APC requires urgent action. The business model will need to change if APC is to continue to offer value for money. The answer is to complement veteran expertise with easier-to-use processes, workflows and tools, effective knowledge capture, in-product context relevant training, better integration of product sets, and globalisation of solutions.

This emphasis on intuitive functionality will become still more important if the current downturn continues for a significant period of time, as it is likely to accelerate the trend among engineers to take early retirement.

To counterbalance this, it will be vital to make the operator interface as simple to use as possible. The global nature of the recession means that the globalisation of these interfaces will also be critical in ensuring that the language used on the interface screens is tailored to the operator's specific requirements.

Again, the key to delivering a safer operational environment lies in providing straightforward solutions within complex communications environments.

Any technology that can streamline operational processes will help make facilities and plants safer. A human operator working in any production facility can only be expected to effectively manage a finite number of tasks.However, often there are hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of parameters to monitor and control. A single operator will simply not be able to monitor all of those parameters and still find the safest and most efficient way to operate the plant.

Modern IT applications can help surmount these challenges by presenting data as role-based information in a prioritised manner. In other words, only information related to an individual's role is visualised and provided to that particular member of staff. This helps operators focus on tasks that are critical to maintaining the operational integrity of the plant.

Advanced control applications, available from companies like AspenTech, can review hundreds of operational parameters every second and control the plant in a safe way. Unlike human operators, they can also work continuously at a consistently high level of excellence.

As a result of their use, the operator's role becomes supervisory, overseeing the advanced applications and setting the general direction.

So, as engineers with APC expertise continue to retire in numbers and are replaced with less experienced and less expensive staff, technology is playing an increasingly important role in plugging the knowledge gap and resolving the growing skills shortage issue.

Today, easier-to-use tools and processes enhanced integration and effective knowledge capture are not only driving business efficiencies, but also helping to ensure safer, more secure operations of facilities and plants across the process industries.

Dr Paul Turner, Principal Advisor, APC Product Management, AspenTech, Reading, Berkshire,UK.