When there is a boom in an industry, there generally follows that there will be an increased demand for skilled workers and technicians. If the demand cannot be satisfied locally, then workers come in from other regions or industries to fill the vacuum. If the demand is especially high, then new recruits are found and trained and the pay scales escalate. The current boom in commodities like unconventional gas and oil has resulted in a peak in demand for valve and control engineers in areas such as Australia, Texas and western Canada.
Additionally, nearly all industries are experiencing advances in technology. In our own valve and actuator industry, we have seen an increase in sophistication in control and automation. For example, the use of microprocessors in valve actuators is now commonplace.
This makes the maintenance and upkeep of site equipment an even more demanding task for new field technicians. The mechanical part of automated valve design may be fairly stable in terms of technology, but valve actuators have always been challenging devices for maintenance personnel. During my years as an apprentice in a power plant, nobody wanted to work on the MOVs and one senior technician was designated to work on the electric actuators on the plant.
For previous generations, when machines failed to operate, the first thing to do was take it apart to see what was wrong. But that was before actuators were “smart”. Now almost all instrumentation has developed to a point where the diagnostic process cannot be done by physical disassembly. The instrument now needs to be connected to a diagnostic tool or interrogated using a built in HMI (human machine interface) to determine where a problem may lie. This is because the problem could be a faulty PCB or a software issue and visual inspection reveals little.
No More Diagnosis by Disassembly
In fact, disassembly by untrained technicians or operators invariably exacerbates a problem. I have seen actuators disassembled and modified with iron bars welded onto output shafts to try to increase seating force, when a simple adjustment of the torque switch would have solved the problem.
Non-intrusive diagnostics are fine if the technician is familiar with the equipment, but with the variety of instruments and manufacturers in the market today, it’s near impossible to be an expert, or even familiar with, maintenance and diagnosis of every instrument. Sometimes, there is just too much information.
Imagine the situation of a maintenance technician sent to troubleshoot a problem at a remote site. There may be three or four brands of instrumentation and control equipment on site and a variety of instruments from each brand. Well trained and experienced technicians may be prepared with tools and documentation to enable a reasonable chance of resolving problems. However, new hires may find they are stuck a five hour drive from base with a vital tool or piece of information missing.
The good news is that if they have a cell phone connection they can either call back to base for support or download a manual from the internet or even view a “YouTube” video guide for fixing the problem. In remote areas, though, there may not even be a reliable cell signal.
The only real solution to the problem is to make the training for technical equipment as effective as possible, with easy to use support documentation that can be stored and accessed on portable devices. Retaining the information from training sessions seems to be best when delivered in a classroom environment combined with hands-on experience to consolidate knowledge.
Many manufactures have recognized this and have well-equipped training facilities to provide comprehensive training to users of their equipment. However, this type of training takes a commitment in time and money for both parties. Users have to take employees away from their duties for several days. Would they do this if they only had few pieces of one manufacturer’s equipment?
For technicians that are involved with valves and actuators, a good foundation of general knowledge on the subject is an important basis on which to build further specialist knowledge. There are many types of valves in use today and a fundamental knowledge of the various types, function and application of valves should be part of a technician’s training. Further, the available range of actuators for those valves, and the way in which they work, is important. Once a solid foundation is laid, then specialist knowledge can be gained from the training resources of individual manufacturers.
Users will decide on how best to train their technicians depending on the type and quantity of the equipment they are using. If an equipment manufacture’s in-house training cannot be justified, then there are alternatives. A tour of the chosen manufacturer’s web site will often uncover documentation, installation manuals, training videos and interactive “eLearning” modules that give training on the functions and maintenance of their equipment.
A wise trainer once told me that, “A trainee may remember a verbal description for about a week, a picture may be remembered for a month, but a hands-on session with real equipment will be remembered for years”.