In the West, process engineering companies have typically benefited from the ability to access experienced talent in the form of operators, control/process engineers and general IT staff. Much of this talent is aging and retiring from the industry and there is a shortage of staff with sufficient skills to replace these employees, writes John Taylor, vice-president EMEA, business consulting and sales operations at AspenTech.
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With pressure from the market and companies looking at rationalising assets, this position is likely to worsen still further - in the short term at least.
The problem is particularly acute in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries. According to The Society of Petroleum Engineers, the average age of a petroleum worker is 51 years old. Nearly 60% are 45 or older. This represents a significant peak in the profile of existing workers and suggests that around 40% of the workforce will be lost over the next ten years
These skills are currently not being replaced. According to Shell Global Solutions, US colleges produced fewer than 200,000 technically based graduates to replace the two million experienced professionals who retired between 1998 and 2008. And similar problems exist across the EMEA region, where students are increasingly choosing to pursue business focused rather than technology focused degrees and careers.
Knowledge transfer is key
We are already feeling the effects of these problems. As a result, there is an increasing reliance on automation and intelligent systems to boost workforce productivity. The key requirement is the ability to facilitate knowledge transfer. Organisations need solutions that are capable of capturing all of the salient points about a facility in one place and at the same time, and by so doing help to drive their workflow efficiencies, improve their productivity levels and enhance their predictive capabilities.
The challenge for software technology vendors in the space is to work with customers to find ways that technology can be used to build efficiencies in the processes undertaken by engineers and make the programmes intuitive so that less skilled operators are able to use them.
Continuity is critical here. The first question engineers typically ask when carrying out a new study of an existing process is: "Do we have a previous model for this?" They are above all looking for software tools that will allow them to quickly and easily optimise the efficient operation of the process in question.
Putting a structure in place
If inexperienced engineers have to sift through a vast quantity of documentation from a broad range of unconnected sources, they will inevitably find the whole process time-consuming and frustrating. It will also be almost impossible to verify the accuracy and the reliability of the source and avoid interpretation errors.
Instead, they need to seek out process optimisation solutions that enable them to obtain a much more structured information set. In this way, they can have the reassurance of knowing that the data has already been sorted and classified making it much easier to find information and giving the user confidence that his or her understanding of the data is consistent with that of the person who originally put it into the system.
The great benefit of such an approach is that the only prior knowledge users need is an understanding of how to use the software itself. In other words, it represents an extremely effective means of optimising knowledge transfer from one generation of engineers to the next.
Today's process engineering landscape is changing rapidly. With many organisations no longer able to draw on the skills and expertise of highly experienced operators, automated knowledge transfer solutions that effectively close the skills gap and deliver a potent combination of rich functionality and ease of use are likely to become ever more popular.