The Control Room of the Future - Smarter Reality

The Control Room of the Future Will Put a World of Science-Fiction Tools at Operators' Fingertips - but They'll Only Be Effective if Designers, Engineers and Operators Jointly Plan Ahead and Use Them to Serve Practical, Functional Needs

By Jim Montague

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To create a better control room, Bullemer adds that builders must start with the functions and needs of their operators and how they interact, and capture those requirements in their designs. "If you're building a control room, we say that you have to start from the inside out," says Bullemer. "You have to first understand the operators and what they need on their consoles, and then arrange those consoles based on how they collaborate. Then you define who the operators interact with and prioritize who needs to have access or be next to the control room. Finally, you branch out to the rest of the facilities and the building. And, in the unified control and collaboration centers that are growing up, designers need to think even more about individual user tasks, integrating formerly separate roles and effective workflow." 

Clusters and Collaboration Centers

Perhaps the biggest evolution in control rooms—and the best indication of their future direction—is this recent gathering together of previously separate control rooms into joint control and collaboration centers with added space for field operators, contractors, managers and other visitors—and even nearby, dedicated conference rooms for strategy meetings.

For instance, Borregaard (www.borregaard.com) recently worked with User Centered Design Services Inc. (UCDS, www.mycontrolroom.com) and Honeywell Process Solutions (http://hpsweb.honeywell.com) to improve efficiency and collaboration, as well as cope with a 30% workforce reduction, by consolidating eight control rooms into one at its pulp and paper plant and biorefinery in Sarpsborg, Norway, just south of Oslo. Efforts to revamp the control room began two years ago, and the new facility opened last summer.

Previously, like most legacy control facilities, Borregaard's  former control rooms had a patchwork of control systems with traditional instruments, DCS panels, PLCs and some black-screen PCs that had accumulated over 30 years. However, they weren't well integrated; most of its processes had no common optimization strategy; and it wasn't using much of its data to improve its operating intelligence. Because its processes couldn't be shut down, Borregaard worked with UCDS to redeploy its staff and implemented Honeywell's Experion PKS controls in pieces, implementing its standard DCS and PLC interfaces and server boxes.

"Some operators, especially those in the chlorine plant, were very concerned about migrating to a unified control room," says Ian Nimmo, president of UCDS. "So we all looked at what was needed to bring each process to a safe state. Next, the operators were allowed to throw every obstacle and scenario they could at the new control system plan, pick holes in each other's design, and this gave them enough confidence that their attitudes changed. We also organized the staff into dedicated inside control operators and dedicated outside field operators to close gaps and reduce running back and forth," explains Nimmo. "Now, they have a beautiful, well-lighted control room, server rack room across the hall and a vision for the next 20 years." (Figure 1)

Likewise, the Linde Industrial Gases division (www.linde-gas.com) of Linde Group AG reports it's established the first of several large remote operations facilities for more efficient, centralized control of its air-separation plants in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Linde's goal is to eventually control all of its plants worldwide with just eight remote operation centers (ROCs). In fact, Linde reports that in the year since its ROC project started, its initial plants in Schkopau, Hamburg, Salzgitter and Basel have been integrated, and are now being controlled from its headquarters in Leuna. It plans to add another 70 facilities gradually.

Each ROC will provide all the local HMI functions of Linde's remote process control systems via terminals, which will reduce time-consuming and costly on-site assignments, and help coordinate maintenance and shutdowns. Meanwhile, special functions such as automatic load control (ALC) and linear model predictive control (LMPC) allow continuous plant operation within optimum working ranges, which also boosts productivity and saves energy. These plants use Siemens Industry's (www.siemens.com) Simatic PCS 7 to automate their air-separation and gas production.  

"The local personnel still look after the plant on the day shift," explains Dr. Joachim Pretz, Linde's ROC manager in Leuna. "Metaphorically, the operator and local engineers are the aircraft crew, and the ROC is the tower, which is manned 24/7 with air traffic controllers." Consequently, each ROC's operator watches over five air separation units with two monitors each.

Show, Don't Tell

Unfortunately, even after planning ahead to design a user-centered control room, unexpected snags can still pop up. For example, after seeking input from a cross section of operators, the FGD project team at DTE Energy proposed a model for final review and approval. However, decisions of this type typically need a broader level of engagement for final approval and sign off. In this case, the team was confident in its development work, but the higher-level operations committee questioned some recommendations.

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