Operator Effectiveness: The Case for Investment

Is It Any Wonder that Operators' Inability to Act Capably and Confidently Is Responsible for an Enormous Loss of Productivity, Money, and Even Life Across Industry?

By Keith Larson

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It happens every day in thousands of plants around the world. Operators report to work, eager to contribute to their companies' success – but often find the deck stacked against them.

In an all-too-typical operations center, human factors rank as afterthought at best, with little attention paid to traffic patterns, operator station ergonomics and even less to user interface design. Operators may be oriented to "normal," steady-state plant operations, but are ill-prepared to deal with abnormal situations when they arise. This 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 walkie-talkies, telephones and other system interfaces at the precise moment the process demands their undivided attention.

Is it any wonder that operators' inability to act capably and confidently is responsible for an enormous loss of productivity, money, and even life and limb across industry? Indeed, research indicates that nearly 80% of unscheduled 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.

In addition to avoiding downtime, damage, injury and environmental emissions, the lost opportunity cost due to operators functioning at less than peak effectiveness looms large. In an exclusive joint research project by Control magazine and ABB across Control's global database of process automation professionals, respondents agreed that operators have an outsized potential to impact quality and economic performance metrics (see "The State of Operator Effectiveness").

From Frying Pan to Fire

Clearly the need—and potential payoff—for more effective operators is enormous and intuitively understood. But rather than reversing course and simplifying operators' tasks, industry has only ramped up the pressure in recent years.

Satellite control rooms are giving way to central operations centers as companies struggle to improve financial performance by increasing the utilization of operations resources. And at greenfield processing sites around the world, plants and units that once operated in a standalone fashion—with dedicated control rooms, interim holding tanks and buffer capacity—now are built as integrated mega-plants with intricate unit dependencies that must be understood, controlled and optimized in real-time. In the end, fewer operators are responsible for more functional areas, more interconnected processes and more sophisticated control strategies.

Further complicating matters, experienced Baby Boomers are retiring in droves, and companies find it harder than ever to recruit and retain qualified individuals willing to devote themselves to a career in their "grandfather's control room"—without ready access to the information and collaboration tools they need to succeed, and scarcely a nod to modern principles of ergonomic and human-centered design principles.

The Four Pillars of Operator Effectiveness

Fortunately, an array of best practices and technologies is available to help operators perform to their potential despite escalating complexity. At the core of them all is a fundamental shift in philosophy that places a considered evaluation of the operator's needs, abilities and limitations—including their individual characteristics—front and center in the design process.

As with other user-centric design endeavors, the essential goal of operator effectiveness measures is for the technology to effectively "disappear," so the operator can quickly gather and assess input, collaborate as necessary, and steer the process through turbulent patches or unanticipated conditions as smoothly and intuitively as possible.

ABB, the global leader in automation and power technology, is at the forefront of this new way of thinking, bringing together the necessary technology and business practices as four essential disciplines, each of which is described in greater detail in the articles that follow:

Plant system integration: Raw data and other inputs must be transformed into actionable information in context—easily viewed, listened to, or otherwise sensed in an integrated environment regardless of source. The challenge is to provide seamless access to multiple sources of information, but at the same time not overload the operator with irrelevant data.

High performance human-machine interface (HMI): The user interface must be intuitive and allow the operator to manage views dynamically and efficiently. A high performance interface supports situation awareness through how information is displayed as well as abnormal situation handling through advanced filtering and consolidation strategies.

Human factors and ergonomics: Just as manufacturing processes are designed to be carefully controlled and manipulated to achieve desired outcomes, high-performance control rooms and operator stations must be designed from the beginning with operator performance in mind.

Integrated simulation environments: The global airline industry boasts an enviable safety record, due in no small part to the extensive use of training simulators. Should we provide any less for our process pilots? High fidelity simulator training is all about ensuring operator competence and instilling confidence, especially in situations seldom encountered in the course of routine operation. Integrated simulation environments further leverage the graphics and logic developed for the control system itself, providing a more realistic, easily maintained simulation environment.

The potential benefits of an integrated approach to operator effectiveness are essentially the flip sides of all the problems already attributed to less well equipped operators. All have to do with improved decision-making: When operator effectiveness rises, so do productivity, efficiency, asset utilization, safety, environmental compliance—and profits.

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