The trainees are illuminated by several blinking monitors, testing their knowledge and reactions to catastrophic events displayed before them. They interpret technical data, make adjustments, and pilot the system around disaster and back to stability.
It might seem straight out of Space Camp, but this is an increasingly common scene in water and wastewater municipalities, where supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) simulation training offers hands-on experience to usher in the next generation of operators.
“Technology has moved forward to the point where it’s more practical to talk about simulation for the water and wastewater industry,” said Doug Johnson, the director of Water Automation Solutions at Emerson Process Management, a company that offers SCADA simulation tools. “Just like aircraft training and nuclear power plants, simulators can help people who are just learning how to operate some of those facilities and assets to learn the intricacies of operation.”
With training on a simulator, would-be operators can learn to control plant functions and navigate systems without putting the actual community at risk of their unsteady hands. Behind a simulator, trainees can realistically manage sewer overflow during a virtual storm, quickly respond to the failures of digital pumps, and optimize the deployment of computer-generated treatment chemicals.
“The ability to, in a simulated environment, cause problems to happen allows operators to get a lot more experience quickly, and they can then go back and look at what happened, how they handled the situation, and really analyze it and go do it again so they can handle some potentially disastrous situations in a much more effective manner,” Johnson said.
The chance to simulate SCADA operations may also appeal to seasoned municipality vets. It gives them a chance to test out new control strategies or test a new piece of equipment in a no-risk environment. They can use the feature to tinker with optimization and hopefully find ways to cut costs. If a simulation reveals some top-level issue at the plant, they have the opportunity to change things before a real-life catastrophe occurs.
In 2010, the Water Research Foundation reported that “estimates place the anticipated loss of current utility employees at between 30 to 50 percent within the next 10 years” and that the impact of these retirements will be felt “most severely in areas requiring technical skills and knowledge such as engineering and operations.”
In an industry constantly fighting uphill against the prospects of a dwindling workforce and the resulting discontinuity in expertise — so-called “brain drain” — any tool that modernizes training for tomorrow’s operators should be embraced. A SCADA simulator can fill in the on-the-job learning gaps between a retiring generation and its replacement in a markedly modern way.
“There are, in almost every environment, a few people who really know how everything works,” said Johnson. “Normally, when someone who has that kind of critical knowledge retires, that knowledge is lost. It’s very hard to capture that kind of stuff… Something that used to take a special knowledge or skill set becomes easily integrated into the automation system, so everybody can take advantage of it.”
As simulators become more affordable and popular within treatment plants, passing down precious hands-on operational knowledge, perhaps the next generation of utility pros will become a reality that is anything but virtual.