The Human Side of Efficiency: Recognizing the Value of Training in Plant Systems Optimization

Rachel Madan

May 1, 2002

Is the best way to improve industrial plant energy efficiency through a technical overhaul or management structure? The answer is that neither is effective without the other. Unfortunately, many operators concentrate their energies on technical improvements, ignoring the tremendous savings that can arise through low-risk, low-tech solutions such as training for proper maintenance and operation. This paper outlines the issues managers face in implementing an effective training program, the benefits that result from training, and further explains key areas where training is especially effective in reducing energy waste and increasing plant profitability.

Technical innovations in industrial processes have greatly improved energy efficiency potential since the 1973 oil embargo. In fact, energy intensity (energy use per unit of production) in the manufacturing sector fell steadily from 1973 to 1985, when it stabilized. Reductions in energy intensity increased again in 1993. Even so, facility managers cannot look to technical solutions for all energy use problems. In fact, many problems stem from lack of training related to system optimization or ineffective training programs. Establishing an effective, low-cost, low-tech training and maintenance program within a plant can prevent the seemingly endless cycle of fighting recurring problems. In particular, plants with energy intensive steam production systems can make lasting improvements toward increased energy efficiency and improved plant performance. By devoting resources to solving the problems at hand, management investments in training have a fast payback and lasting results.

Unfortunately, the value of training, not only to improving energy efficiency, but also to the bottom line, is often greatly underestimated. Training is often perceived as a cost, not an investment. However, investing in a training program will minimize costs, increase profit, and improve productivity and reliability. In fact, training is one of the most valuable investments a company can make. For instance, a study conducted by the American Society for Training and Development found that training investments across all sectors could yield favorable financial returns for firms and their investors. This study found that an increase of $680 in a firm’s training expenditure per employee generates, on average, a six percentage point improvement in TSR (total shareholder return) in the following year, even after controlling for many other important factors.

Training results in a high return on investment. For example, a recently trained Hallmark Canada employee used his knowledge to develop an energy-efficiency project resulting in $32,000 per year of savings-a 1.6 year payback for the cost of the project. In another example, a recently trained building operator of Olympia & York Properties proposed an insulation project which is expected to save as much as $70,000 per year-quite a savings when compared to the cost of the training.

Barriers to Training

One of the largest barriers to training investments is the underestimation of its importance, both by management and staff alike. Many companies don’t take a proactive stance on energy management, relying instead on "crisis management." This attitude, combined with reliance on technology for energy management solutions, results in wasted energy and lost productivity.

One way for management to become proactive about their energy problems is to properly train their staff to be vigilant about maintenance and operations. However, it’s not enough for management just to enroll their staff in training programs. The training program must have the support of management, including understanding the focus and purpose of training, expected results, and providing a workplace to support implementation. Training must be treated as a fundamental requirement of comprehensive energy management. Without this support, employee enthusiasm for training wanes, and results are greatly reduced.

Benefits of Training

A trained workforce is one that can make tangible improvements to a plant’s safety, reliability, production, and financial bottom line. Perhaps the most obvious and important benefit of training is improving the safety record of a plant. For example, Weirton Steel Corp. undertook a series of training initiatives beginning in 1998, including safety-awareness training, hands-on workstation training, and certifying all plant supervisors in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s General Industry Standards. As a result, recordable incidents fell 63 percent from 1997 to 2000. In addition, other intangible factors, such as attitude, improved. In 1997, only 15 percent of Weirton Steel Corp. employees surveyed believed that their own actions could protect their co-workers. In 2000, 60 percent believed this to be true.

In addition, a properly trained staff is a large part of maintaining reliable equipment, which also increases productivity. For example, in 1990, U.S. Steel embarked on a comprehensive predictive maintenance program to improve maintenance practices and lower maintenance costs. The program focused on employee involvement, training, and team activity. Misalignments of rotating equipment dropped from 15 percent in 1990 to only 1 percent in 1996. Success such as this led to the 1993 and 1995 National Maintenance Excellence Award for maintenance and equipment reliability. Another example is the predictive maintenance program at Fletcher Challenge Canada’s Crofton (British Columbia) pulp mill. The Crofton mill embarked on a preventative maintenance program by creating a full-time maintenance systems specialist position and a team of hourly employees to build the preventative maintenance process. This team was trained through both classroom and field sessions. The sessions covered the tools and techniques necessary to perform the inspections, as well as why the inspections were necessary and what the benefits were from doing them. In just two years, the team met its goal of a 30 percent reduction in lost production due to breakdowns from the base year, translating into $3.54 million per year.

Lastly, worker training focused on system optimization adds to the value of the company and the bottom line. It should be looked at as an investment, not a cost. In fact the true costs of industrial accidents-including the costs of lost production and efficiency on a company-wide basis-can be several times the costs of workers’ compensation and employee disability payments. In addition, training usually has a high return and a quick payback time. For instance, ICI, a chemicals company, invested £100,000 (1992 prices [approximately $143,000 in current U.S. dollars]) for direct training costs, including training, employment of a full-time energy manager, metering, and revenue expenditure on repairs and minor improvements. The result was a savings of over £500,000 (1992 prices [approximately $713,000 in current U.S. dollars]) per year, an astounding 10-week payback period. Add to this the positive impacts that training has on a company’s shareholder value, and training turns out to be a true investment in company value.

Training Reaps Benefits

Undertaking and implementing a training program may seem overwhelming for some companies. However, many simple, easy programs can be implemented and will not only make the workplace safer, but better and more efficient. Outlined below are two examples of simple training programs that have a large impact on safety, energy efficiency, and savings.

Boiler Improvements

A key area for efficiency improvements is in the boiler system. According to the National Board Incident Report for 2000, operator error or poor maintenance are the cause of 42 percent of reported power boiler incidents, 39 percent of steam heating boiler incidents, 42 percent of water heating boiler incidents, and 76 percent of unfired pressure vessel incidents. In addition, the National Board Incident Report for 1993 indicated that 79 percent of all boiler accidents for the three boiler categories (power boilers, steam heating boilers, and water heating boilers) were attributable to just two causes: low water cutoffs, and operator error/poor maintenance. These incidents not only lead to accidents, but downtime and equipment loss.

Something as simple as training staff to maintain a boiler log can help reduce these accidents. However, the responsibility for maintaining the logs doesn’t rest solely with the operator. Management must take responsibility for implementing and supervising the log program. In addition, management must ensure that a log analysis program is implemented and carried out. This type of program allows staff to help distinguish operating trends, schedule maintenance, and diagnose and fix small problems before they become massive problems requiring emergency shutdown.

Steam Trap Maintenance

Another key area for steam system efficiency improvements is in steam traps. In steam systems that haven’t been maintained for three to five years, the failure rate for steam traps may be as high as 15 percent to 30 percent of the trap population. This causes problems such as steam loss through open traps and leaks, decreased equipment reliability due to water hammer and corrosion in steam lines, reduced product processing due to reduced quality of steam, and increased equipment repairs due to down-time and replacement costs.

A successful steam trap maintenance program isn’t that difficult to implement, especially when staff tag the locations of traps and log the traps in a spreadsheet. However, the success of the program relies on management commitment to giving maintenance personnel specialized training in proper equipment (including ultrasonics and temperature) as well as computer databasing to track steam system management and report on savings.

Management Commitment Needed

To implement a successful training program, management must be committed, proactive, and supportive, both attitudinally and financially. The rewards are great for this kind of support. Successful training reduces accidents, improves reliability, and improves efficiency, productivity, and the bottom line. It’s recommended that managers begin with low-risk, low-tech training programs such as boiler operations, boiler maintenance, and steam trap maintenance. Such programs are low-investment and high-return.