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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New Guy in Town—The Process Control Operator

This has resulted in the next phase of the evolution, the change from console operator to process control operator. This new role is not just about monitoring the instruments with computer screens, but also keeping track of the productivity of the process.

The job has changed and not only requires a more detailed understanding of the process and equipment, but also of the control strategy through regulatory control, advanced predictive model control and optimization.

This operator is responsible for starting and shutting down the process, controlling it in a steady state to ensure safe production, while managing optimum performance and being conscious of the operating costs. This person has sole responsibility for managing abnormal situations and, when required, making the decision to shut the plant down safely.

Every operator who performs this job must be fully qualified and competent to carry out all the expected duties. He or she must be competent in teamwork and able to provide direction and leadership to the outside field operator during diagnosis and recovery events.

The role is not just monitoring and reacting during an abnormal situation. A good process control operator will maintain situation awareness of the processes under control. He or she normally will be managing multiple processes on multiple units.

Continuing Evolution

As the operator’s job continues to evolve, many experts believe the traditional field operator job is changing also. The traditional activities we have discussed will still be a major part of their jobs, but they will assume more responsibility for the reliability of the equipment.

We are already seeing field operators monitoring and tracking rotating equipment bearings using handheld vibration monitoring computers, studying valve performance, predicting equipment failures and doing more in the coordination and setting of maintenance activities.

The role is changing to that of an equipment specialist and may become part of the maintenance organization rather than the operations team.

The challenge many companies face is how do we get there from here? How do we maintain the field knowledge of the process control operator and reinforce the mental model of the process and equipment to be effective.

Today, companies are struggling with these issues, especially in light of the aging workforce and loss of essential experienced personnel. We are seeing, the introduction of 50% new operators into this environment, along with 50% new maintenance people at a time when we are trying to merge two disciplines. There is also the impact of adding large numbers of young managers, supervisors and engineers as they too have large numbers leaving the workforce.

What we do know is that we cannot address this issue by automating our way out of it. We have already witnessed the impact of increased system complexity, loss of situation awareness, system brittleness and increased workload at inappropriate times.

What of the future? Technology must be exploited in accordance with human limitations. We need a different approach to technology. It needs to support the way people work.

We have a new model for each of the operating roles. We know how important they are; we also know of the challenges we face with training new people, so we must start using the technology more effectively. We have had simulation technology available for many years, but we have not used it because of the cost associated with purchase and maintenance.

Our challenge is to make it cost-effective and to leverage it properly.

How does the traditional shift team supervisor now fit into this organization? We have seen the role splitting with the creation of a dedicated shift team supervisor just for the process control operators. This role has the responsibility to optimize the process using this team and being the front line manager for disturbances.

Supervision in the field will be essential. As new people are introduced, we will need good training here also. The role of this supervisor will be to manage the transition and ensure people are working safely. This supervisor will also have the responsibility of first responder in an emergency and will not only manage his troops in the field but will coordinate emergency services and maintenance as required.

Control rooms will be centralized and away from the dangers associated with processing highly hazardous chemicals. The field will have facilities, but they will be modular, blast- resistant field shelters with limited control functionality and will be focused on supporting equipment reliability.

This is probably the greatest change to operations since the industrial revolution. It will have social and economic repercussions. Some will be reluctant to see the separation of the field and controls from operations, but we should examine our existing model and understand it does not work anymore with the technology we have developed and that a new way of working is an essential next step in the evolutionary process. 

Ian Nimmo is president of User Centered Design Services Inc. and an expert on human factors in process control operations.

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