Process Automation Operator Performance Gets Better

Prioritized Data, Simpler Displays, Human-Factors-Designed Equipment, Fatigue-Reduction Efforts, Alarm Planning and Other Tools Can All Improve Situational Awareness and Operator Performance. So How Much Do You Need of Each?

By Jim Montague

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Just as there are many ways to improve process controls and automation, there are many useful ingredients that go into improving operator performance. And, just like mixing up a nutritious fruit smoothie or protein shake, the best recipe for optimal operator performance means finding the tools and methods you need most and will suit you best.

These components include better prioritized data and alerts, simplified displays and software, improved ergonomics, targeted training and simulations, new policies on alertness and physical fitness, and numerous software tools and proactive procedures. All can help enhance operator performance and improve the safety and productivity of process applications, and lately they're being followed by a bunch of other helpful tools and software.

For instance, Dave Strobhar, chief human factors engineer at the Center for Operator Performance, reports it's testing the semantic procedure analyzer (SPA), which is learning software that recognizes and flags terms, updates all applicable documents and makes it easier for operators to organize and update routine and emergency procedures. SPA was developed by Penn State University with contributions from center members Chevron and Yokogawa Corp. of America. The center also just developed its display metrics toolkit (DMT) that lets operators measure their performance with different graphics, which can help them create better tools for individual applications. "We now have a range of tools and methods for evaluating performance, so operators and managers can more easily develop the best solution for them," says Strobhar.

See Also: Immersive Simulator Boosts Operator Preparedness

Collaboration Aids Simplification

One of the best ways to improve operator performance is to get the operators involved early in designing solutions that can meet the specific needs of their applications.

"When we implement interfaces and control systems, we get the operations guys on the team developing the graphics as soon as possible," says Keith Jones, president of systems integrator Prism Systems Inc. in Mobile, Ala. "So after we program the PLCs and DCSs and bring their data to the HMIs, about 80% of the input on what those displays should include and how they should look has already come from the operators. Once operators get some real input on changes they become very proud of them."

Despite these potential benefits, Jones adds there can still be a lot of reluctance to change by older, entrenched operators when Prism is asked to upgrade brownfield applications. "We've seen some really horrible HMIs that pack as much information and color onto one screen as possible. This was done because HMIs and screens used to be a lot more costly, but they make it very hard to pick out what's important," explains Jones. "This is why we began following and preaching the Abnormal Situation Management Consortium's principles on prioritizing data and using minimalist-style graphics and quad-display systems. But even though monitors are cheaper and more effective now, it's still hard to sell operators on them, and management doesn't want to increase their burden or add more training."

See Also: ASM Consortium Process Safety Incident Log

Jones reports that some HMI software can allow users to keep the look of their old, custom screens, but this can make them harder and more expensive to upgrade in the future, so it's better to make the jump to common, standard HMI function blocks and configuration tools, such as Siemens Industry's Simatic PCS 7 and HMI Plus software. "If we can convince a user to change to standard HMI, then we can begin to clean up the graphics and do training on them," says Jones.

Jones adds that PCS 7 has conversion tools for migrating tag databases and hardware-defined tasks from old PCs and unsupported software to new systems, which can greatly reduce the costs of HMI and DCS upgrade projects. "We can even leave some old hardware in place and run it in parallel with a new HMI system for awhile," explains Jones. "Then, if mistakes are made, we can make a punch list and check them by comparing the old and new systems."

Enhancing the HMI

If one of the best ways to aid operators is to fix what they're looking at, are there common recommendations for improving those screens and other HMIs? No doubt.

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