The Evolution of the Process Control Engineer

We’ve Come a Long Way from the Days When Refinery Operators Used Flaming Arrows to Relight Their Flare Systems, but Even Bigger Changes May Be Ahead

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These duties have not changed too much, except we have automated a large proportion of the manual manipulation. The remainder are too difficult or expensive to automate.

In the past, the workflow was organized around the experience of the team. The new folks did the lab sampling and ran errands while they observed and learned each individual job.

The introduction of instrumentation technology moved control into local control rooms, but the workload was still shared, and operators would work inside and outside duties. As more technology was added and the complexity of controls increased, it became more economical to dedicate a single person to the control room.

This became the job for either a dedicated panel operator or a new role for the chief operator. Many companies liked the flexibility of having the chief working inside and outside, so they created a new job called panel operator. The work allowed some flexibility, and it was common for this person to go outside to manipulate equipment close to the control room.

So now three distinct operator roles exist: the field operator, the panel operator and the chief operator. Each position was seen as a career advancement. It was valuable to the team that as many of the field operators as possible became qualified on the board so they could cover for vacation and sickness. It was also valuable that an operator had a complete understanding of both inside and outside roles.

Situation Awareness

The advantage of having dedicated panel operators was that it allowed them to keep an eye on the big picture, and they developed exceptional “situation awareness.” Operators used good pattern recognition skills to monitor many process trends, developing techniques for tracking the difference between good and bad values. They constantly used real-time and hourly averaged trends. This only is achieved when the operator is aware of the immediate, intermediate and long-term goals, plans and real-time events.

To protect the panel operator’s situation awareness, the chief operator handled disturbances by outside influences, such as maintenance people requiring permits. Over time, this changed, and maintenance people, managers, engineers, supervisors and a host of other people invaded the control room, causing major distractions. This was the start of the loss of situation awareness.

At this time, the instrument panel was designed around tasks, allowing the panel operator to stand at one section of the panel and take control to handle any disturbance. A bigger event required the operator moving back and forth down the panel. As this type of event unfolded, other operators and supervision often stepped up to the panel, and the controls were partitioned based on peoples knowledge and experience. When an operator had to step outside to manipulate or check equipment manually, someone else assumed responsibility for the controls on his section of the panel.

Technology continued to evolve. Electronic controllers replaced the pneumatic ones, but the roles and responsibilities did not change. That happened only when the physical controllers were replaced by a computer and software.

The distributed control system (DCS) replaced the panel and now provided a keyhole view of the process, isolated through a keyboard and computer screen. Several screens were provided, but at some point, it became difficult for operators to multitask the control function.

The early introduction of the DCS still allowed the operator to work inside/outside duties, but now the operators lost their good situation awareness, and designers compensated by introducing more and more alarms. Operators soon lost the ability to foresee the intermediate and long-term and became more reactive. The early DCS software handled trending very poorly and soon trending was rare and alarm floods common.

The role now changed from a panel operator to a console operator. Most companies tried to keep the roles and responsibilities identical to the previous panel operator model.

The more complex the DCS became, the harder it was to monitor that big picture and for operators to maintain their situation awareness. They were out of the loop.

It became apparent that some operators had natural ability and often liked working with the DCS, while others did not. Many companies have recognized that the evolved roles have different skill sets, and that they need to hire for specific positions.

Sounds like a perfectly reasonable approach, doesn’t it? However, the practical aspects of providing overtime cover for sickness, holidays and other events that take a qualified console operator away from the job created a problem with coverage. To get around this problem companies decided to rotate operators and keep them qualified in both inside and outside duties.

This all happened, often in the same control rooms, where the pneumatic controls once dominated. However, due to this loss in situation awareness and and rise of a reactive operating stance, the potential for human error and accidents dramatically increased. Regulators responded by requiring companies to move non-essential personnel outside the process area.


The console operator became one of those casualties. A safer working environment replaced the benefits of:

  • Face-to-face communication,
  • The ability to use other human sensors (other operators)to detect an abnormal situation, such as hearing plant telltale sounds or smelling a potential leak,
  • Having the supervisor in close proximity to both groups of operators.

At the same time, the new environment did provide some new and exciting benefits, such as:

  • The ability to put all the control operators together and organize them based on communication and collaboration requirements,
  • The reduction in disturbances, such as maintenance and permitting, typical in the local control rooms,
  • The ability of console operators to concentrate on shutting the unit down during an emergency, without the consequences or bad effects of that emergency, such as a toxic release, fire or explosion.

As companies have tried several operating models, pace-setting organizations have exploited the benefits, worked through the negative issues and mitigated many of the problems using unique solutions.

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