Fort McMurray Industry Testing Virtual Reality for Oil and Gas Training

In the oil and gas industry, failure in engineering, in the control room or in the field is not an option, as it can lead to tragedy—from financial loss to environmental ravage to death.

Cases in point: the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers, injured 17 others, and spilled an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf, causing extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats; the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 people; and the Piper Alpha—on record as the worst offshore oilfield disaster in history—that caught fire in 1988 while in the British sector of the North Sea, killing 167 men.

Billions of dollars were lost in these accidents, but nothing is more shattering than the loss of life. And, unfortunately, most accidents can be blamed on human error. According to accounts from the Piper Alpha incident, the fire was a result of unfinished maintenance work on a pump and safety valve that was not communicated to the night crew. Going about their normal business, the night crew turned on an alternate pump, leading to several explosions.

These incidents weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of manufacturing executives and plant managers who are ultimately responsible for the accidents. That’s why Canadian-based energy company Nexen (now a subsidiary of China National Offshore Oil), has Stan Hamilton, a simulation training specialist, preparing the Nexen workforce with operator training simulators (OTS).

Nexen has oil extraction wells and a central processing facility that produces premium synthetic crude oil from bitumen extracted using steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology. Plant processes are controlled with an Emerson DeltaV distributed control system (DCS). But before operators can get their hands on any of these technologies, they must spend six months and 160 hours training on Schneider Electric’s SimSci Dynsim dynamic process simulator.

“It provides a complete hands-on experience where people can explore what will happen if they do something, which in the real world, you just can’t test,” Hamilton says. “It gives trainees more flexibility to explore why you can’t do certain things.”

Hamilton has been using OTS for about eight years, beginning with the simulation of the DCS configuration and design prior to rolling it out in the Fort McMurray, Alberta, plant seven years ago. Now, everything (except utilities) is simulated, he says, providing operators with the ability to fully understand the impact of their actions. The software also gives experienced process engineers the ability to test what-if scenarios related to equipment in the plant.

Simulation training is quickly becoming an important tool in workforce development, especially in high-risk continuous process environments like oil and gas, chemical, energy and mining industries. That’s why the OTS marketplace is expanding. Besides Schneider Electric, Honeywell Process Solutions, Siemens, GSE Systems and others offer simulation and immersive 3D technology designed to provide the manufacturing workforce with a virtual experience of the company’s existing equipment, control systems, programs and processes. The tools are not cheap, but it’s an investment that many companies are ready to make to accelerate the knowledge transfer between retiring Baby Boomers and new recruits.

Simulation software and immersive technology have a game-like feel, which appeals to the Millennial generation. In immersive virtual environments, the user may be wearing head-mounted virtual reality goggles and using an Xbox controller to navigate an avatar around a 3D depiction of the plant. It provides a risk-free experience to view the layout of equipment and how to react in an emergency. As a side benefit, the technology could keep these kids interested and on the job longer than their typical two- to three-year attention span (the timeframe within which many individuals job hop).

Of course, there are also regulatory issues around safety that make investing in virtual reality training applications a priority, as no company wants to make news headlines because of a mishap in the plant.

From entry level to expert

Ultimately, the goal is to ramp up plant floor proficiency as quickly as possible. Industry experts say simulation boosts learning retention rates dramatically. On average, students retain 5 percent of what they hear in lectures, 10 percent of what they read, and 20 percent of what they see and hear in audiovisual presentations, according to the National Training Laboratory (NTL) Institute for Applied Behavioral Science. Add simulation—which enables them to practice by doing—and learning retention rates leap to 75 percent.

“Retention is higher using immersive technology because people can remember all of the places and features of the plant vividly,” says Janice Abel, a principal consultant at ARC Advisory Group. This type of 3D technology is already used to train doctors and pilots, she says, and makes perfect sense in the manufacturing environment.

Simulation also accelerates the speed of learning, says Bruce Manthey, vice president of marketing and sales for the process business unit of GSE Systems. Without simulation tools, it could take five to six years to bring someone from an entry-level knowledge base to the intermediate level needed to become an autonomous board operator. “With these tools, you can cut that time in half to about two and a half to three years,” he says.

John Roffel, product director of operator competency advanced solutions at Honeywell Process Solutions, concurs, but adds that many companies are taking training a step further to implement competency sustainability programs, as many people are not staying in their role long enough to even hit the minimum level of competency.

Pertamina, a state-owned oil and gas producer in Indonesia with six refineries across the country, processes about 1 million barrels of crude oil per day. The company sought to improve one of its largest refineries by committing to process safety operation and equipment reliability, plant operations management, and people development. A site survey of its Balongan refinery in 2008 revealed that Pertamina’s operator training was largely performed by senior operators through classroom sessions and on-the-job training. It was an informal, mentor-led program, and qualifications awarded to trainees were subjective—relying upon the judgment of the course supervisor. As a result, Pertamina concluded it needed to overhaul operator training to a sustainable model that captured knowledge from its aging workforce, ensured consistent standards, and committed to the site’s safety, reliability and efficiency.

“Avoiding downtime and operator safety are our main concerns,” says Herry Saleh, process advisor for process control and refining technology at Pertamina.

Using Honeywell’s UniSim Competency Suite simulation software with the refining technology of Honeywell-owned UOP, which developed a training curriculum and created a structured and consistent training model, Pertamina was provided with a comprehensive simulation-based training program including workbooks, assessment customized for the refinery’s equipment, flow rates and tag names. UniSim adds a real-time dynamic simulation that mirrors the HMI of the DCS, along with preconfigured training exercises and the ability to capture training records.

Now panel operators are prepared for shutdown or startup unit processes. Field operators are prepared and ready to back up DCS operators. And, periodically, panel operators have to pass specific process simulation scenarios based on their expertise level.

The human element

Training and competency management are important because employees are assets to the corporation. People are equipped with intellectual property and the physical traits that are critical to operating a plant. “You can’t run a plant without trained operators,” GSE’s Manthey says. “You can’t push the ‘go’ button on the DCS and expect product to come out the other end. You have to have people involved.”

Given that people learn differently and in stages, GSE has a range of learning options for onboarding entry-level operators—from web-based tutorials used to help people master foundational competencies to universal simulators, a DCS-like interface with generic instrument and graphic displays. At the other end of the spectrum is interactive 2D OTS and 3D immersion including high-fidelity simulations that interface with every major DCS to reflect real-world operations.

Indeed, it’s important to have a high-fidelity model, says ARC’s Abel, as it enables the simulation application to precisely emulate what the DCS does. “It has to accurately [reflect] how the system would respond.”

Getting to an accurate simulation model, however, is a process in and of itself that takes time.

There is a phased approach to high fidelity, says Joseph McMullen, product marketing for SimSci at Schneider Electric. When designing a plant, you want to get people familiar with the process. So first you should implement a generic simulator to represent a crude oil distillation unit to train operators on typical startup procedures (not specific to the company’s equipment). Once that is designed, the control system strategy and exact dimensions can be added so that the simulator begins to behave identically. Of course, there are always upgrades to a control system, in which case the simulator should be upgraded first—to find mistakes before the deployment in the actual plant and to keep the simulator up to date on changes.

The SimSci Simulated Control Process (SCP) uses the same control logic as Schneider Electric’s Foxboro control system, and is combined with the modeling capability from Dynsim, which is used for process design, operational analysis and OTS.

“When using the exact same code, you will get the exact same behavior,” McMullen says. SimSci SCP also has emulators for third-party DCSs, but it might take a little longer to synchronize the control logic, he says.

At Nexen, where SimSci Dynsim is used with Emerson’s DeltaV, Hamilton updates the simulator about every six months to reflect the growth and changes in units. It’s also good to bring operators back for training. “If you have a unit that is extremely stable and the operations staff don’t see problems for over a year, when a problem does come up the retention of knowing what to do is not as good,” he says. “So it’s a good idea to have them play around with the simulation every so often.”

Hamilton is also toying around with SimSci Eyesim, an immersive training system that uses high-fidelity 3D process simulation and a virtual walkthrough of the plant. “We are exploring it to see the value,” he says, noting it would be a good training tool for field operators.

This is not a game

The Siemens Comos Walkinside 3D visualization system, which can be applied to any industry, is used primarily by oil and gas organizations for training on standard operational procedures and emergency situations. To create the virtual environment, 3D CAD data is taken from engineering and converted to the virtual reality model. Interfacing with Walkinside allows related documents to be linked, such as work permits, maintenance activities, and even graphics showing which spare parts you need to take with you in the event of an explosion.

“The benefit of Walkinside is that we are able to handle really big models, like an oil rig, allowing the user to move around like in a game,” says Manuel Keldenich, Comos product marketing manager at Siemens.

But it’s not a game. It incorporates serious scenarios that could mean the difference between productivity and calamity. Therefore, included in the virtual model are escape paths represented in full length for rehearsal of evacuation procedures. Sound effects and even wind direction complete the realistic setting. Once the field operators are physically on the offshore platform, they can use a laptop to look at a 3D model linked to a DCS so that in the event of an alarm they can review the model and even communicate with experts on land to figure out the problem and quickly find the solution.

Another evolving onsite technology for training is wearable computing in the form of smart glasses and smart watches. APX Labs is on the forefront of the wearable technology trend, which it began five years ago with military applications, such as smart helmets worn by soldiers. Since then it has evolved into Skylight, the company’s backend software that can push instructions to manufacturing field service technicians on an assembly line or an oil rig.

“Rather than look up to see instructions, it’s in the field of view,” says APX Labs’ CEO Brian Ballard. “It removes the guesswork.” And how do you get instructions when you need them? “You ask the glasses,” he says. The latest version of Skylight includes work management streams and voice commands.

Whether it’s wearable technology or virtual reality, these advances are significant when it comes to the future of manufacturing. That’s because they are “re-humanizing” manufacturing to attract new talent, Ballard says. “Manufacturers have to make sure they are increasing the workforce, because a robot is not the answer for every part of the process.”

More importantly, Millennials are teaching us that every generation learns differently. Manufacturers have gone from a culture that says “tell me what to do,” to a “what’s in it for me?” mentality. OTS and immersive environments, however, can bridge the culture gap by providing an experience that helps any generation retain information.

“Our workforce includes kids just out of college to people ready to retire,” Nexen’s Hamilton says. “You have to be in tune to how people work.”

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