An industrial power plant at sunset

Upgrading your Plant: Is Vendor Training Enough?

As reported in the revealing and comprehensive 2017 maintenance survey, “Help wanted: More training, equipment upgrades,” published by Plant Engineering[1], equipment upgrades and more maintenance training would help decrease equipment downtime in industrial facilities.  It was found that 42% of the survey respondents said aging equipment was the leading cause for unscheduled downtime, with 19% indicating operator error and 13% indicating not enough time to perform proper maintenance. 

The survey not only questioned the causes of equipment downtime but also asked what the best way was to address this critical reliability issue.  The respondents focused on upgrading equipment, improved and increased maintenance training and preventive maintenance strategies, and improved and expanded equipment monitoring. 

As the owners and management at large industrial plants such as a power plants, pulp and paper mills or steel mills work to extend the life of their aging facilities, many are looking to upgrade the plant equipment, upgrade entire processes or in some instances replace the entire plant.  Every time these large industrial plants are upgraded with new equipment, training from the original equipment manufacturer (vendor training) or EPC (Engineer, Procure Construct) Contractor training is specified and implemented.  The question many organizations face is; is this training sufficient; does it meet our needs? 

In many instances the vendor or EPC training is poorly implemented because the field engineer performing the training, although technically competent, has little or no interest in training or feels it is a secondary responsibility that pales in importance to their responsibilities associated with the startup and commissioning of the new equipment.  That said, some vendor/EPC training is conducted “professionally” by equipment vendors or EPC’s training organizations.  In these cases the training may be considered “professional” because the trainer comes to class prepared with a professionally produced PowerPoint™ presentation and the trainer has good or acceptable classroom presentation skills.  As discussed in the Automation World Magazine July 1, 2006 issue, the article “Tackling the Training Challenge[2],” some vendors are working to improve the flexibility and effectiveness of the training provided by equipment manufacturers. 

The need for solid and effective training is made more urgent due to continued attrition of the workforce as described by Power Magazine in their March 2011 article, “Training Tomorrow’s Power Industry Workers[3].”  In the article, the author emphasizes that as older more experienced workers leave the workforce, more and improved training is needed.

My question is; is the vendor training really adequate for achieving the goal of having the equipment technician (operator or maintenance person) sufficiently prepared to competently operate or maintain the equipment once the plant takes “ownership.”  Full competence requires the technicians have the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully perform all job tasks associated with the equipment so they can successfully operate and maintain the equipment within their plant using available resources.

For example, if the new equipment or process is operated from the plant DCS (not a vendor-supplied PLC), then the training must integrate the control of the equipment and process from the DCS.  Similarly, if the new equipment requires use of special tools or tools the technicians are not competent with, this will require special training.  Training should also cover the interface between new and existing systems and processes as well as changes to the integrated operations of the new equipment within the entire plant or process.

With the competitive environment prevalent throughout industry today, very often new technology is introduced into a plant that will improve the efficiency and performance of the overall plant.  This often requires training on the foundational knowledge (operational theory and control philosophy) that is implemented in the new technology as well as how it is being implemented at the applicable plant.

A vendor’s trainer may be able to achieve the objectives detailed above but this requires the trainer having the time and wiliness to assess the job requirements at the plant and identifying the knowledge and skills applicable to the plant and the specific installation of the new equipment.  This also requires the vendor tailor the training so it accounts for the existing knowledge or lack thereof of the workforce at the plant and also adapting the training to the specific project goals.  It also requires the trainer address any specific circumstances such as special equipment or tools needed to perform the job tasks, integration of existing plant control systems such as the plant’s DCS, and the competency level of the plant staff.

An article, “Pros and Cons of Vendor-Provided Training[4],” published in the HR Daily Advisor web site in February 2020, discusses the benefits and considerations associated with using vendor-provided training.  Although the article explained that there were many benefits both to the customer and vendor for implementing this training, the customer needs to ensure the provided training is in their best interest.

We have seen and heard so often that many vendors or EPC trainers deliver a “canned” course and the trainer knows the equipment and systems but lacks detailed knowledge or familiarization with how the equipment is being implemented at the plant.  A solution is to prepare a detailed training specification with project technical requirements that address the plant’s customized training needs so that the training provider is held to deliver a quality job and plant-specific performance-based training experience.  A slight twist on this approach is to identify a competent and experienced training and documentation consultant who can act as the training coordinator who will ensure the requirements detailed above can be met and the plant staff is fully prepared to participate in the equipment startup and can confidently takeover operations and maintenance of the equipment once commissioned.  The training coordination should include assessing, designing, developing, implementing and evaluating all of the required training.  For training requiring specialized expertise only available from the vendor the coordinator should coordinate the vendor’s trainer so the delivered training meets the overall needs of the project.  

An article, “How To Develop and Implement a Successful Maintenance Skills Training Program[5]” published on the RelibilityWeb.Com website described that to provide effective training requires a skills assessment and a training program designed to “to meet the plant’s long term goals.”  The article continues to indicate that “Maintenance training, developed and implemented properly, can help companies save money, increase product quality, and improve employee morale.”

The final word is as improvements continue to be made to upgrade or debottleneck facilities, management needs to ensure the training provided to support the plant is adequate to ensure the staff is competently trained when the improvement is implemented.