Training -- The Big Picture

Implementing training programs as part of the whole solution can help improve plant efficiency, especially with the help of a few new technological advances in training

Traditionally, training has often been approached as an afterthought -- a vendor demonstrating a specific product to operators after the product has been purchased and installed. But in today's highly competitive marketplace, training is an important part of the whole solution. Training provides operators with tools and insights that can help them lower costs and improve efficiency plant wide.

Benefits of Training

Improved Process Quality
While plant personnel are experts in their applications, they may not be experts in a given measurement; but a good training program can provide that expertise. For example, an engineering specification may dictate that a certain measurement always fall into a given pH range. The operators and technicians may not understand pH measurement specifically or see the benefit it has to the company. By kKeeping the pH value at a particular level can keep the process pipes in better condition, improve production throughput and enable the plant to meet environmental regulatory standards. Training programs should not simply focus on how to use a piece of equipment, but provide a better grasp of the importance of the measurement. Once the measurement itself is understood, plants can more effectively use the analysis to improve the efficiency of the plant and increase the quality of the product.

In one example, a plant using particle counters in addition to turbidity meters did not realize that the particle counters were not set up to take full advantage of their complete measuring potential. The operators knew they could use the particle counter to test for clarity of the water and detect filter breakthrough, but they did not know it also could be used to detect harmful contaminants in the water. Using the particle counter the way they did simply provided them with the same type of data they received from their turbidity meter. They did not use the size distribution function of the particle counters to detect various particulate sizes that could indicate the presence of different contaminants, including E.Coli, among others. If they had a training class on the measurement itself, and not just a product familiarization demo, they could make the most effective use of their instrumentation.

Improved Maintenance Procedures
In addition to improving a plant's production quality, training programs also can be used to increase plant efficiency by helping plant professionals develop better maintenance programs. If a plant does not tightly manage its maintenance cycles, it can typically err in one of two ways. If calibration and cleaning of sensors is performed too infrequently, the results could be dirty or damaged sensors that cause production slow-downs, or worse, unexpected production shutdowns. On the side of caution, cleaning, calibration and/or replacement of sensors too often can add long-term costs in employee hours. Both negatively impact plant productivity and the bottom line.

Maintenance requirements vary from measurement to measurement, instrument to instrument and, most importantly, from application to application. For example, some pH sensors last years, while others only last weeks. Some sensors need routine maintenance (i.e., cleaning) every month, while others must be cleaned daily. Because each process is unique, a particular sensor model can never be used for all applications. Sensor life and performance are dependent upon the environment in which the sensor is used. Understanding how a sensor will typically perform in each given application enables plants to better plan scheduled maintenance cycles for both sensor cleaning and/or instrument replacement.

Because each application, each measurement and each instrument may vary in its maintenance requirements, it can be a somewhat complex process to develop the appropriate maintenance schedule. An effective training program can be helpful in this process by teaching operators ways to conduct tests to determine how often an instrument requires maintenance. As these tests are performed, data is gathered over the course of several months and patterns emerge that indicate how often a particular sensor in a given application should be cleaned and when it should be replaced.

A phosphate plant with both process water and wastewater applications received training in pH and conductivity measurements and learned they could improve their maintenance procedures by properly calibrating their instrumentation. Through the training, plant personnel gained a broader understanding of the measurements and how they fit into the process. The plant was able to put this knowledge into action immediately. In one example, operators found that if in-process conductivity meters were reading the measurement inaccurately, the system would be dumped and the plant would lose a highly valuable product. After their training, plant personnel were able to more effectively re-evaluate the equipment and make changes to appropriately maintain an accurate conductivity measurement every time. By using the knowledge, tips and tools they gained from their training, plant personnel were able to develop and implement comprehensive maintenance and calibration schedules, realizing savings by reducing employee hours and limiting plant downtime.

The type of information that might be included in a pH training session, for example, may be how to conduct a two-point calibration to check certain variables and how to use this data over the course of about six months to develop appropriate maintenance schedules. Operators would be taught to view and record the slope value of the sensor that is to be calibrated. They would then be shown how to place the sensor into a buffer solution to produce a millivolt reading that the analyzer then displays as a pH value. A second buffer solution would be used to achieve a different millivolt reading and establish the slope of that sensor. Operators can then compare the new slope to the slope they achieved previously in the last calibration. If the slopes are the same or very close, operators would know they conducted the two-point calibration procedure too soon, so they could set up their maintenance procedures to calibrate less frequently. But if the slopes are significantly different, this indicates to plant personnel that they may need to conduct the two-point calibration more frequently as part of their procedure. The change in the slope also can determine if cleaning or replacement of a sensor is necessary. Operators would be shown how by consistently conducting these evaluations, tracking the results and recording how often calibration, cleaning and replacement are necessary, plants can develop a maintenance schedule that dictates when a sensor in a specific application should be cleaned or when it should be replaced.

Some analysis equipment incorporates diagnostics features that can aid plants in understanding what maintenance is needed and when. But first, staff must be properly trained to use diagnostics correctly and proactively.

Trouble-shooting Skills
When problems do arise, effective training can aid in quickly identifying the glitch and fixing it. A pharmaceutical plant experienced problems with an analysis system that had been built with a systems integrator and incorporated several different vendors' products. When the problem was discovered, the plant, the integrator and the vendors all worked together to isolate the various product components to test each one individually and determine the cause so it could be fixed. An effective training program teaches plant personnel how to isolate each of the components in a given loop so they can quickly pinpoint problems and avoid the unfortunate and counter-productive custom of finger pointing.

The experience of the pharmaceutical plant also illustrates another training trend in the industry of setting up instruction programs for integrated environments. Often, plants that work with systems integrators to build analysis systems will require that a training session be created whereby both plant personnel and support personnel from the integrator and each of the vendors involved be trained on all of the products incorporated into the plant's solution. This kind of up-front training enables plants to better trouble-shoot problems and avoid frustrating communication problems from the beginning.

In some cases, plant personnel may not even be aware of what they do not know. There are times when a training program may be focused on one application, but once the plant operators and technicians better understand the measurement in general, they realize they can use that knowledge to make improvements in other areas of the plant. In addition, they may often even come to realize a different measurement or instrument may meet their individual application needs even better.

Best Practices and Selecting Training Options
There are several simple steps that plants can take to select and manage training programs effectively. As a first step, it's important that plants budget for training programs in order to make best use of their equipment investments. As simple as it is, once budgeted, it should be well-communicated plant wide and to purchasing personnel that a training budget does exist. In some cases, plant personnel may not even be aware that they can purchase training and this, in part, leads to the view of training as an afterthought, rather than as a critical part of the whole solution.

In addition, once an organization establishes training as a priority, it's important that it set up how training will be managed. This can often be handled by creating a training coordinator and/or manager position, depending on the size of the company. This training representative can work with the appropriate plant personnel to purchase and coordinate specific training sessions.

There are several different kinds of training packages available and it's important that an organization select the training solution that will best meet the needs of its individual applications. Generally, instruction falls into four categories: factory training, site training, satellite factory training and product familiarization.

Factory training is typically conducted for individuals and small groups at the vendor's offices using instrument loops. Site training is done for larger groups at the customer's site. Some of the training is conducted in the classroom using real instruments, and some training is done on that actual plant floor. Satellite factory training is conducted for individuals or small groups from several different plants using the same measurement and/or application. Product familiarization is typically the simplest and most traditional training package available wherein a small group of operators are simply trained at the installed analyzer in their plant on the measurement in their application and how the instrumentation is used.

Technological Advancements in Training
In 420 B.C., Lao Tse said, "If you tell me, I'll listen. If you show me, I'll see. If I experience it, I'll learn." Today's training programs use several technologies in different ways that make the training session more interactive, and thus, more effective.

For example, some instructors use surveillance cameras as a tool for instrument demonstrations. The instructor leads two or three students in performing the demonstration and the surveillance camera is used to project the demonstration onto the screen so that the entire class can follow along. Without the camera, the entire class attempts to crowd around to watch those two or three students, resulting in the majority of the class not seeing the demonstration well enough. Also, new electronic whiteboard, "smart technology" screens, allow the presenter to write directly on a slide or diagram being projected to emphasize a particular point. In addition, while hands-on training on the instrumentation is absolutely required for effective training, the Web can be a very beneficial tool. For example, many suppliers provide online training sites and programs, while user organizations may find it helpful to build online training libraries where the most useful presentation materials are archived for future use.

While it's not necessarily a function of technology, a good trainer will often have several items set up in different segments of the training room. For example, a white board may have graphs or diagrams, an instrument loop will be set up for demonstration and use in one corner and a monitor at the front may show a presentation.

Conclusion
Current training programs, when viewed as part of a complete solution, rather than an afterthought, can be implemented effectively to help processing and water treatment professionals develop better maintenance procedures, lower their costs and improve their productivity.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

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