A Safe And Effective Approach To Plant Operator Training

Homo sapiens have been around for between 200 000 and 300 000 years. Although it is barely 50 000 years since the species developed language, this was the first step on a long but steadily accelerating journey to today’s technological age. The next significant disruption came with the means to generate and distribute electricity. Since then, power stations have become larger and more sophisticated, creating a need for equally sophisticated plant operator training. 

Domestic, commercial and industrial power consumption has been growing exponentially since the industrial revolution and shows no sign of slowing. However, it has also become evident that some methods of generating electricity are no longer sustainable. In many countries, including South Africa, the focus is moving from combustible fossil fuels to nuclear fission as a cleaner method to produce the steam that drives the generators. Alternative technologies, such as hydroelectric schemes, and wind and solar farms, offer viable solutions while creating a need for additional forms of specialised plant operator training.

After living for years with the constant threat of brown-outs and load shedding, it is easy to overlook that electricity is not the only commodity in short supply. For those who may have forgotten Cape Town’s near-catastrophic “Day Zero” drought, in common with most of the populated world, our country is in the grip of a severe water crisis. The private sector and government have responded to this crisis by embracing desalination technology. Nevertheless, while it may produce water rather than electricity, it will be equally crucial to provide appropriate plant operator training for engineers and technical staff in the desalination industry.

Managing the operation and power output from a hydroelectric scheme also presents technical challenges unique to the sector and requires specialised knowledge and skills. One natural energy source that is available to anyone with the means to exploit it is geothermal power. Not surprisingly, harnessing that power and utilising it either directly for heating or indirectly to generate electricity is also a specialised task. The engineers and technicians involved have an equal need for relevant plant operator training.

After decades of research and experiments, it now seems there has been a significant breakthrough in the attempt to create a controlled fusion reaction. It also appears possible that the UK could soon be the first country to build and operate a nuclear fusion power plant, ahead of the United States and China. Regardless of who may be first past the post, the promise of clean power in exchange for cheap fuel and water as the only waste product is sure to prompt worldwide adoption. Naturally, this will create the need for yet another type of plant operator training. So, what may be the best way to provide the appropriate instruction for these diverse applications?

We learn through our senses, listening to lectures, reading books or watching videos, and, where appropriate, perhaps getting behind the controls of a machine or conducting a lab experiment under supervision. This traditional approach works but is often slow, and learners benefit to different degrees. A holistic approach, combining auditory, visual and tactile input, is vital for rapid skills development and long-term retention when developing practical skills. Consequently, video-gaming technology offers a perfect platform for plant operator training.

The power of utilising a realistic simulation as a practical learning tool has been well established. For example, the cockpit simulator has proven its value as an aid for trainee pilots and qualified flyers who may wish to adapt to the controls of a new aircraft. Extending the freedom to repeat a complex and crucial manoeuvre over and over again until one’s performance is flawless is only feasible in a simulated learning environment.

That said, a commercial flight simulator can cost $10 million or more while the Windows version for PC sells for under $200. With suitable software, one can create a plant operator training simulation for just about any industrial application, albeit not quite as cheaply as the Microsoft game.

There are alternative options for a company that may lack the skills or time or prefer not to develop the simulation in-house. For example, one can purchase a generic product, which will not duplicate the trainees’ working environment in detail but will allow them to perform, understand and retain the same necessary actions when back in their workplaces.

Generic and bespoke, comprehensive and task-specific simulations for plant operator training in several core industries are currently available in South Africa from SimGenics.

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