Process engineering companies have historically benefited from access to experienced talent in the form of operators, control/process engineers and general IT staff. This situation is now under threat.
Thousands of engineers are facing retirement and there is a shortage of staff with the necessary expertise to replace them.
With pressure from the market and companies looking at rationalising assets, this situation is unlikely to improve – in the short term at least.
The problem is particularly severe in the oil, gas and chemicals sectors. According to the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the average age of a petroleum worker is 51 years old. Nearly 60 per cent are 45 or older. This represents a peak in the profile of existing workers and suggests that approximately 40 per cent of the workforce will be lost over the next 10 years.
The prospect of such a significant loss of experience and expertise requires urgent action. Organisations need to decide how to capture and retain knowledge and pass it on effectively to the incoming generation. The skills of veterans need to be complemented with easier-to-use tools and processes, tighter integration of product sets, globalisation of solutions and effective knowledge capture and transfer.
Organisations need solutions that can encapsulate the salient points about a facility in one place, in turn helping to drive workflow efficiencies, improve productivity levels and enhance predictive capabilities.
For software vendors in the space, the challenge is to work with customers to find ways that technology can be leveraged to build efficiencies in engineering processes and make programmes intuitive so that less-skilled operators can use them.
Simplicity is the key. So, although there are many technical challenges ahead across the process industries, there is a drive to make software easier-to-use, implement and support.
Continuity is equally important. When carrying out a new study of an existing process, engineers often ask: ‘do we have a previous model for this?’ If they have to sort through a vast quantity of documentation from unfamiliar and unconnected sources, it will be almost impossible to verify the accuracy and the reliability of the information and avoid interpretation errors.
Instead, they should seek out process optimisation solutions that enable them to obtain data that has been sorted and classified in advance, making it easier to find information and giving engineers confidence that their understanding is consistent with that of the original user.
The great benefit of such an approach is that the only prior knowledge required is an understanding of how to use the software itself. In other words, it represents an effective means of optimising knowledge transfer from one generation of engineers to the next.
Looking to the Future
Today’s process engineering landscape is changing rapidly. Hard-pressed engineering companies are no longer able to draw on the skills and expertise of highly experienced operators. For these companies, automated knowledge transfer solutions that effectively close the skills gap and deliver a powerful combination of rich functionality and ease of use are likely to become increasingly popular.
John Taylor, vice-president EMEA, Business Consulting and Sales Operations, AspenTech