When linemen get called out in the middle of the night to work on a complex transformer bank, some pull out a book or a card for reference. American Electric Power (Columbus, Ohio), however, is striving to make this knowledge second nature to its field workforce. Through a combination of both traditional classroom and online training, the utility is sharpening its linemen's skill sets.

For the last three months, AEP linemen have tested their knowledge of transformer banks through a virtual simulation designed by 3DInternet (www.3dinternet.com). The utility has had the program in a trial period for about a year and is now making it available on its company Intranet and rolling it out to its 2,500 linemen in the field.

By investing in the technology, the utility is trying to ensure quality customer service, minimize outage times and reduce damage to the equipment. AEP is also aiming to safeguard its field workers, who can put themselves in harm's way if they aren't able to recognize the proper installations or troubleshoot a problem correctly.

“It allows them to be safe without jeopardizing our system,” said Larry Thompson, a senior training specialist for AEP and a former line mechanic with 34 years of experience.

Training Tool

AEP has offered transformer classes for many years, and this is the company's entry into the high-tech age. While AEP linemen still attend in-person training sessions on transformers, they can use the simulator in conjunction with training or student experimentation.

Before the AEP linemen had access to the simulator, they would learn how to troubleshoot a transformer bank by working on three small transformers designed for training purposes. The students would wire the bank up like they would in the field, which could be very time consuming.

Another disadvantage to this type of traditional training was that AEP could also only offer the hands-on training to a few students at a time. Now that the linemen can learn through the computer program, they can build their transformer bank on their desktop at their own pace in a less-stressful learning environment.

“They don't feel the pressure of a dozen eyes staring at them when they work on it,” Thompson said. “If they make a mistake, the program will let them know when they try to energize the bank of transformers online.”

AEP offers the simulator as a training aid both inside and outside of the classroom. When linemen leave the classroom and return home, they can pull up the program from any company computer with access to AEP's Intranet. One of the benefits of the program being available at their work location is that linemen can use their downtime for training. There's no need to schedule a class or instructor, and the self-study program is ready to be used at a moment's notice.

The linemen can download the program through a virtual private network, but without a high-speed connection, it can be a slow transfer. To make it easier for linemen to use the program out in the field, AEP is considering offering its line workers wireless Internet access in the future.

Learning Curve

AEP offers the transformer classes as part of its apprenticeship program. The utility also offers advanced training workshops for the more seasoned linemen. In some cases, it may be 10 to 15 years since linemen have been through a formal classroom-style transformer class, but with the online simulation, it is available to them whenever they want, and they don't have to wait for a workshop to take place.

As a result of the training, AEP has estimated a knowledge gain of 20% from pre-test to post-test scores, even with seasoned linemen. The program helps linemen to refresh their memory, which is especially valuable for those who have worked in the field for a long time, like John Kennedy, a line mechanic A for Appalachian Power, a subsidiary of AEP in Huntington, West Virginia.

“I don't build transformer banks every single day, so I may forget some things,” Kennedy said. “By having a simulator readily available and being able to work on it, I can hone in on the wiring I have to build on a live system and become familiar with all the banks.”

Simulating Scenarios

To use the simulator, linemen simply click on the program and then determine what kind of trouble they want to simulate. To de-energize a transformer, they remove a wire on the computer screen. They also can throw a short circuit that leads to a blown fuse or experiment with mixing polarities in the same transformer bank.

The transformer simulator can be customized for any system available in the industry today, not just for the AEP system. This ensures the simulator is applicable for use across the industry.

Linemen have discovered that the program is especially helpful when they're working on other utility's systems. For example, if linemen are familiar with wye systems but find themselves working on a delta system and face problems, they can resolve their issues online rather than making costly mistakes out in the field.

If the equipment blows up in the simulation, the linemen see a light, smoke and fire show on the screen. They can then simply reset the program and try something else. Out in the field, however, a false move could create hazards, blown fuses, exploding transformers, and expose the workers to arc flashes. Linemen can use the online module for experimentation without putting themselves or their coworkers at risk or causing equipment failures.

Bringing Drawings to Life

Before AEP invested in the software, students would draw transformer banks on paper. Oftentimes, however, the linemen would truly learn how to work on transformers by actually doing the work in the field and watching other linemen.

The simulator helps to bridge the gap between drawing the schematic diagrams on paper and doing the physical connections in the field. For many years, this was a piece of the puzzle that was missing for the AEP line crews.

Many of today's younger linemen, who have been on computers and video games their entire lives, find it easy to grasp the computer simulation program. It's often harder, however, for these young linemen to visualize a transformer bank by looking at a paper drawing. By taking that diagram and showing what the transformer bank would look like on an actual pole, it helps the linemen to better visualize the installation.

“The tool provides a link between the paperwork and the physical work, which makes it more realistic for the linemen,” said Dale Goodwin, a training specialist with AEP and a former line mechanic with 20 years of experience in the electrical industry.

Because the diagrams are three-dimensional in the simulator, the linemen can see a transformer bank from all angles rather than a flat drawing. The linemen can look at the transformer above, below and around it by rotating it in the computer program.

One of the key advantages to the transformer simulator is that it gets the linemen interested in the training. Some of the linemen would rather be out in the field working than be in a classroom environment. The computer program, however, is like a video game; they become mesmerized and can play with it for hours.

“When they play the game, they can't help but learn,” said Goodwin.

Future Plans

Because of the success AEP has experienced with the online training model for the simulation, the utility is planning to offer other virtual training programs to its linemen.

AEP is exploring different options for training its linemen using virtual technology. The company is currently working with 3DInternet on a recloser course, a voltage regulator simulator and a smart grid simulator.

AEP envisions that in the future, the utility will continue the partnership and build the tools to help the linemen. By offering the online tools, the company is allowing its linemen to test their knowledge, sharpen their skills and improve their safety in the field.

Dwayne Apple ([email protected]) is the manager of technical training for American Electric Power, which has operations in 11 states. A former line mechanic in Abilene, Texas, he has 23 years of experience in the electrical industry.

NB Power Transforms Its Training Program for Field Workers

As technology advances, power line technicians (PLTs) spend more and more time working with computers. For example, at NB Power (New Brunswick, Canada) the PLTs now have ruggedized laptops in their trucks. Just a few years ago, more than 1,000 of the 2,600 employees didn't even have access to the Internet.

“There was a culture that workers didn't need the Internet and computers unless they were directly related to their job,” said Joanne Callahan, a chief learning officer who spearheaded the e-learning initiatives at NB Power. “Our goal was to get the organization into the 21st century by offering employees online options for learning.”

NB Power has always had a very conventional approach to learning through instructor-led courses, but three years ago, the company hired a chief learning officer and then adopted a corporate-wide strategic approach to learning. One of the key initiatives was to create an e-enabled learning environment, which supports e-learning with portable computer devices. Because of the company's commitment to support learning, the utility redesigned the technical school's classroom from small wooden desks and plastic orange chairs to theater-style seating with laptops at each station.

In addition, the Canadian utility is now providing a simulated learning environment to help to augment face-to-face instruction in the classroom. For the last year, the company has worked with 3DInternet to build a simulator to help teach the PLTs the bonding and grounding work method. The simulator also has been rolled out into the field for use and application from the trucks.

The utility is using the simulator in several key ways. The instructors use the simulator to teach, and the field work force uses it as a collaborative learning tool and also for refresher training. The field workers have 24/7 access to the simulator for practice in the classroom, at home or while they are on the road. The simulator is loaded on the Toughbooks in their trucks for use in the field or during tailboard conferences.

When working on this simulation, the workers can go through 15 different scenarios. The product is scalable, so the utility can add more scenarios as desired. In addition, the learning objects within the simulation are modeled after NB Power's equipment and culture. Employees are quickly engaged in the learning environment because it resembles their day-to-day job site, tools and equipment. The company's own logo is even featured on the trucks in the simulation.

The simulator has made economic sense for NB Power because it virtually eliminates the need for traditional maintenance training. The PLTs don't have to leave their families to travel to an off-site location for a seminar. This is important to NB Power, which is one of Atlantic Canada's top 25 family-oriented employers.

By investing in the technology, the company has made an investment in the safety of the field employees, the equipment and the infrastructure. Safety is of key importance to NB Power, which has one of the country's best safety records and has experienced two 12-month periods with no loss-time accidents.

So far, the field crews have responded favorably to the training. For that reason, NB Power is working with 3D Internet on other projects, including a defensive driving simulator, that reach out to more employees, Callahan said.

“The simulated learning environment provides so many learning applications for out PLTs that we hope to develop more work methods in this environment,” she said.