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A more effective Way to conduct Plant Operator Training

Software and computers have been transforming the way we do things since a few years after the launch of the first PC by the Kenbak Corporation in 1971. It took a further five years from then for the Apple II, the Commodore PET and the Tandy Corporation’s TRS-80 to become the world’s first truly successful personal computers and began to attract widespread consumer interest. Today, programmers offer us faster and better ways to do almost anything, from researching facts and improving vehicle safety to plant operator training. The latter option has become especially significant in light of the diminishing capacity of South Africa’s service providers to satisfy the nation’s growing need for electrical energy.

Education is one of the fields that has benefitted extensively from digital electronics. Computers have provided educators with a means to create simulated learning environments that allow learners to perform practical tasks quicker and more safely than in a real-world situation. That said, teaching with simulations is not a new concept. In practice, the idea predates computers and plant operator training by several centuries. To develop the skills of aspiring Knights, trainers used various wooden models to develop skills with lances and swords. Later, mechanical horses provided practice for cavalry recruits. During World War 2, Britain’s Royal Air Force used wooden aircraft replicas similar to modern fairground attractions to familiarise rookie pilots with the flight controls. 

The electronic flight simulators of today are life-sized constructs that physically reproduce every detail of the flight deck except the computer-simulated external view. Not surprisingly, the extensive hardware carries an astronomical price tag. By contrast, computerised plant operator training employs an interactive virtual world that one can view on a monitor, and, naturally, the software programmes responsible are infinitely more affordable. 

It is proven that simulations are a powerful teaching tool that is frequently more effective than hands-on practical training in the live environment. There are several reasons for this. For example, after some initial instruction, a learner can proceed with an exercise without the often-unnerving experience of being under close and constant surveillance. 

Furthermore, learning from mistakes helps improve retention but is hardly a practical option when conducting a live plant operator training session. 

Employers have a legal obligation to safeguard the health and safety of their employees whilst at work. Complying with that responsibility requires far greater vigilance in a power station than in many other workplaces. Allowing an inexperienced recruit to handle complex control systems, even under close supervision, is a risk that a safety-conscious plant manager might believe would be wiser to avoid. Furthermore, all operatives must know how to deal promptly and appropriately with possible emergencies. It’s not hard to understand why emergency procedures are necessary for plant operator training or why simulations are the safest way to teach them.

When working with a simulation, trainees are free to repeat any emergency procedure as many times as they wish until it becomes a conditioned reaction. Making mistakes and correcting them is among the most powerful aids to learning. By studying in a simulated learning environment, a trainee will be free to view the consequences even of a potentially fatal mistake with no risk of real-world repercussions.

The design and functioning of the various simulated learning programmes now available to power stations for plant operator training owe their origins to the world of computer gaming. The software provides users with a first-person experience in surroundings identical or sufficiently similar to their actual working environment. Generic products focus more on functionality than environmental detail. While less lifelike, they are effective, particularly to familiarise trainees with one or two basic activities like start-ups and shut-downs. Generic products are also the least expensive option if one’s training needs are limited, budgets are stretched, or a trainer might prefer to test the concept before making any further commitment.

By contrast, bespoke plant operator training simulations are based on a preliminary 3D laser scan from which to duplicate a working environment in every last detail and can include whatever functions a trainer may require. These include visual and audible prompts, questionnaires for learners and feedback to help them gauge their progress and share it with their trainers. 

To summarise, simulators provide a safe and proven effective learning experience and, in South Africa, one company leads the field in this technology. To learn more about how simulations could improve your plant operator training, contact the industry experts at Simgenics.

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