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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For instance, Waterford Township's Dept. of Public Works (DPW,) uses many types of process control, maintenance, documentation, asset management and enterprise software to operate its water collection, distribution and wastewater systems, which cover 36 square miles in Michigan and serve about 75,000 residents. The water system pumps and treats about 8 million gallons per day of groundwater from 20 wells at 12 plants and 100 remote sites, and the wastewater system maintains 300 miles of sanitary sewers and sends the township's wastewater 30 miles away to Detroit for treatment.

See Also: Upgrading a Wastewater SCADA System

Bill Fritz, PE, Waterford's public works director, reports that the water/wastewater systems operate hundreds of pumps, valves, actuators, water quality and other equipment, which are monitored by more than 1200 I/O points and networked via Modbus TCP/IP, a high-speed Ethernet backbone with twin servers, and remote radios and 100 live-video security cameras at its pumping stations. All of this data comes into an unmanned cubicle, where it's been managed by GE Intelligent Platform's (GEIP) Proficy iFix software, and then reports, e-mails and alerts are pushed out to DPW personnel on their laptops, tablet PCs and smart phones.

Also, about two years ago, Waterford DPW added Proficy Workflow software, which automates more processes, serves as an electronic user manual, and performs exception-based reporting, which notifies users of problems so they don't have to go find them. For example, the department built algorithms and templates to indicate if pairs of pumps are alternating correctly at 62 of its pumping stations. This allows Proficy Workflow to provide alerts when the pumps aren't synched properly, so individual visual checks by the operators aren't required anymore. 

"It's been our goal for years to get as many applications as possible onto one platform, so we don't have to call up so many different types of software," says Fritz. "But we wanted more than snapshots of what's going on, so we're installing new Proficy Vision software, which brings all our separate software programs into one customizable dashboard, and allows us to bring up and quickly scroll through all our individual programs that we couldn't see all at once before. Now our office managers and 56 field staffers can view water operations on the SCADA system, HVAC data, vehicle locations and status, security camera feeds, work orders and other information at the same time (Figure 1). So if there's a water main break, they can trace it with GIS, isolate it faster, check affected pump rates and tank levels, find the closest person and vehicle, tell operators which valves to close, and get specification data into the right hands more quickly."

See Also: Wireless: A Field Guide to Industrial Wireless

Don Busiek, GEIP's general manager for manufacturing software, adds that Proficy Vision was just released in January, and while it renders several types software on one screen, its counterpart Proficy Mobile software will allow users to access SCADA data on tablet PCs and smart phones. "This all about understanding how operators navigate and what they need, and then coming back and providing the right data to them at the right time," says Busiek.

Training, Software and Other Tools

Apart from all the displays and technical solutions, another of the best ways to empower operators is still good, old, thorough, in-class or on-the-job training, which is often aided by online curriculum and simulations.

For instance, to prepare for commissioning and start-up on its Angel platform on western Australia's Northwest Shelf, Woodside Energy Ltd. recently decided to use UniSim operator training simulator from Honeywell Process Solutions to instruct operators how to run its Experion C300 Process Knowledge System (PKS) and quickly diffuse potentially unsafe situations. In fact, Woodside reports employing UniSim before commissioning prevented at least five process trips.

"The Angel training simulator was identical to our real Angel control room panel and enabled our operators to practice on the new C300 system," says Dustin Taylor, Woodside's process engineer. "We also used UniSim Design to model the process, which provided dynamic process behavior for training our panel operators. UniSim increased the competence and confidence of our staff when dealing with unsafe scenarios, plus we reduced the number of trips."

Andrew Ogden-Swift, director of technology strategy at Honeywell Process Solutions, adds, "There are several approaches to training operators including classroom, on-the-job and using standard and custom simulators. The key to proper simulation is defining the competencies needed for operators to perform their roles effectively, while designing training solutions to achieve required competencies."

Similarly, Glenn Goldney, global programs manager for Rockwell Automation's Global Workforce Solutions (GWS) division, adds that, "Operators have been a very neglected population. Not only is there a widespread skills shortage, but their job descriptions are hard to define because of their multiple crafts and roles, and even those existing job descriptions are changing rapidly. This is why training is more important than ever for developing and retaining talent. This is why GWS also helps users segment their job structures and redistribute some responsibilities, so everyone can be more effective. For instance, we recently helped Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. develop a custom job interaction and e-learning solution for operators at its emergency, back-up power plant in Valdez, Alaska, which serves transfer facilities at the end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline."

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