Operators Equipped for Effective Decision-Making

Little Thought Has Been Given to Human Factors in the Design of the Operator Stations, and Even Less to the User Interface Design

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The same scenarios play out every day in control rooms around the world. From the start, little thought has been given to human factors in the design of the operator stations, and even less to the user interface design. Operators are well oriented to "normal," steady-state plant operations, but are untrained and ill-prepared to deal with abnormal situations when they arise. This even includes scheduled shutdowns and start-ups that today happen at increasingly infrequent intervals. And, all too often, the information operators need to make quick, intelligent decisions does not exist within the operations environment—requiring operators to juggle other system interfaces at the precise moment the process itself demands their undivided attention.

Is it any wonder that operators' inability to deal with abnormal situations is responsible for enormous losses of productivity, money, and even life and limb across industry? Indeed, research indicates that nearly 80% of production downtime is preventable. And half of this is due to operator error. The monetary costs of this failure in the petrochemical industry alone are estimated at $20 billion per year. And with the financial impact of an unplanned production outage averaging $250,000 per hour, the incentive to improve operator effectiveness is not to be ignored.

Meanwhile, across industry, satellite control rooms are giving way to central operations centers as companies struggle to improve financial performance through more effective utilization of operations staff. In the end, fewer operators are responsible for more functional areas and increasingly complex processes. So, what's an operator to do?

Four Pillars of Operator Effectiveness

Together with the design of more intuitive user interfaces and more ergonomic operator stations, the integration of disparate plant systems within the System 800xA Operations environment is central to ABB's approach to helping the process industries improve its operators' effectiveness. These three pillars—high performance human-machine interface (HMI), attention to human factors/ergonomics and plant system integration—are complemented by a fourth: the assurance of operator competency and confidence through training on integrated simulation environments.

The key deliverables of this integrated approach to operator effectiveness include:

  • Increased asset utilization: Equipment utilization and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) can be improved through efficient alarm management strategies, which can help to reduce nuisance alarms, rationalize existing alarms, handle alarms dynamically, design alarm sounds properly, and provide a means to monitor the alarm management strategy itself. An alarm management system designed with integrity allows operators to truly operate instead of just reacting.
  • Improved performance: Control room ergonomics and design have a big impact on operator effectiveness. The planning of areas adjacent to the control room needs to take personnel movements and workflows in consideration. Also, with control loops tuned and running in a consistent, automatic mode, the process will perform better which increases output and quality.
  • Improved safety: With more effective operations strategies in place—including alarm management, operator training and loops running in correct mode—the overall safety of plant personnel will improve.
  • Improved collaboration: With systems seamlessly connected and transparent to operations, relevant information and data can be shared, encouraging a collaborative and productive environment.

Integration Is Fundamental

ABB's approach to integrated operations is founded on the inherent integration capabilities of the System 800xA, where the operator works in a seamless environment with vertical, horizontal as well as functional integration. Vertical integration gives the operator access to all information relevant to plant operation such as production orders, production reports and financial performance. Horizontal integration gives the operator detailed access to all types of devices and all types of control systems, independent of brand. Functional integration makes functions located in separate systems, normally not related to automation, available in the seamless operator environment. Examples include live video, maintenance management, laboratory systems and document management systems.

From an operations perspective, the 800xA Operations applications extend the reach of ABB's Process Portal to provide a single, consistent and intuitive window into all the applications encompassed within the Extended Automation environment. It allows users of all disciplines that impact production to organize information and navigate throughout the system in the context of their job function. The system, by virtue of the ability to associate all aspects of information available from the various applications within the system to the appropriate process object, allows for quick and intuitive analysis.  The Extended Automation system environment also streamlines work processes and communication among various functional disciplines.

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