Workforce Challenges in Industrial Electrical Facilities

5 July, 2018 | Blog

PIERRE GIRARD, P.Eng.

Practice Leader, Electrical and CAD

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This post reviews the evolution of challenges managers of major industrial facilities who operate large power systems have to face regarding workforce expertise.

It also provides an overview of today’s options.

BEFORE THE 1980s… AN ANALOG WORLD

To meet the immense needs associated with World War II, the North American industry had to set up highly reliable electrical power distribution facilities to enable large-scale production.

To accomplish this, major industrial power systems were outfitted with increasingly reliable equipment integrated with protection and control devices whose technology relied on simple electromagnetic principles.

To operate these systems, dedicated specialized teams were formed to ensure that all power distribution equipment functioned properly and to perform the manoeuvers necessary to maintain, repair and restore power after an outage.

As these dedicated resources were stable over time, they were able to acquire comprehensive knowledge of the problems that can occur on an industrial electrical distribution network. They also participated in the improvement of technology, which greatly enhanced service continuity of electrical installations and reduced the occurrence of defects.

FROM THE 1980s TO THE 1990s

The operational model remained for several years without any significant evolution until the late 1970s where technology transitioned to electronics, which was firmly established in the 1980s. This technology scaled down protection and control devices and improved reliability by replacing obsolete electromagnetic devices.

Tasks for operations personnel remained the same and the industry still used well trained and efficient technical resources.

In the late 1980s, a new technological transition began with the emergence of new work organization theories that gave rise to substantial changes to power systems operating tasks.

The tremendous influx of microprocessor technology, both for protection relays and metering units, helped regroup and diversify protection and metering features while improving available information quality and performance.

This technological evolution came with a global phenomenon: reduced industry labour costs. All tasks were assessed to eliminate as many resources as possible with no direct impact on production volume.

Tasks related to power systems operators were among the first to be placed on the chopping block. The underlying logic was that since technology had attained high reliability, operations personnel could be let go. That’s why, in the 1990s, almost all operating power systems personnel gradually retired and were not replaced.

THE START OF THE 21ST CENTURY TO NOW…

Since the start of the 21st century, technology has not stopped evolving as regards to protection and control. Input/output management, chronological event recording, oscillopeturbographs and high-level communications capacity integration were added to protection and control units so these devices could be integrated into various control (SCADA) and information management (Historian) systems, which are essential when operating complex processes.

However, these are not without their disadvantages. The multiplicity of communications protocols created a problem when integrating components from various manufacturers. The emergence of standards, such as UCA 2.0 followed by IEC61850, gave hope this problem would be eliminated since the goal of these standards was to allow for device interchangeability and interoperability. Unfortunately, the goal had not yet been fully reached.

The technological lifespan of equipment has also dropped dramatically. Often enough, two generations of devices are put on the market with the same manufacturer during a major project spread out over a 3 to 5 year period.

Faster and faster technological changes and more and more features being integrated into these devices places enormous pressure on personnel operating industrial power systems who, as previously discussed, are now made up of general-purpose workers who must work on the UPS of Unit X in the morning, replace a pump motor on Unit Y in the afternoon and make an emergency call on protection and control devices at the main substation in the evening.

Although manufacturers offer a certain level of support, it is often not enough. For a plant that’s been operating for several decades, there are often devices from dozens of manufacturers with technologies ranging from electromagnetic to the latest protection relays. A single manufacturer is unable to cover all existing technologies.

Personnel are left alone with a fragmented support service, without unified analysis and especially with a feeling of isolation when the time comes to make critical decisions.

TODAY’S OPTIONS AVAILABLE TO MANAGERS

Going back and rebuilding dedicated operating/maintenance teams.

Ideally, this provides managers with the necessary and properly qualified resources to work quickly on all plant equipment.

However, it entails hiring, training, supporting and developing a team dedicated to operating and maintaining an industrial power system.

Manufacturer support

Theoretically, manufacturers have the qualified resources to work on protection and control equipment.

However, they are usually quite knowledgeable about their own range of equipment and products, but severely deficient about products from other manufacturers.

Additionally, manufacturers can sometimes seem available at attractive prices, but remember that the majority of their business comes from product sales. This begs the question: how independent are they when it comes to recommending modifications or replacements, which are usually carried out using their own products.

Consult an independent stakeholder like BBA

Independent stakeholders have the benefit of being impartial. Without products to sell, they can advise clients about their specific needs. A good partner possesses vast expertise, is aware of a range of equipment from multiple manufacturers and considers the multidisciplinary aspects of mandates.

The benefits of working with BBA

BBA has been designing industrial power systems for over 35 years and has found ways to meet the challenges of technological evolution. Being independent, we advise clients on how to select the best technology for their specific needs. We work with all manufacturers on all communications protocols in all imaginable areas of industrial activity.

When designing systems, we actively involve the client and work together to establish how the facility will be built based on client personnel capabilities. We also encourage the participation of client personnel who will work on installations during commissioning. Finally, we develop specific training programs for client facilities.

When a failure occurs, our clients can count on us to provide the necessary support to get facilities back up and running quickly, diagnose the causes of the failure, perform testing before start-up and support them if modifications are necessary to better meet safety requirements and operational continuity.

BBA provides support from the initial study to commissioning and operational assistance, no matter your technological choices. We represent an optimal solution based on challenges industry managers must face when developing, building and maintaining protection and control equipment in their plants.

This content is for general information purposes only. All rights reserved ©BBA

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