I've probably said it before, but after a dozen or so interviews, I usually begin to notice some common threads and trends. Sometimes, these repeated themes are indicated as much by what my sources don't say as what they do say. For example, this month's cover article, "Operator Performance Pumps Up," is all about the multiplying fruit salad of tools and methods for improving operators' situational awareness and their ability to manage process applications efficiently, safely and productively. Everyone was talking focused and prioritized data, uncluttered and efficient HMIs, efforts and rules to reduce fatigue, rationalized alerts and alarms, unified software platforms, simulations, wearable cameras and video-conferencing, and even eye-tracking cameras and ways to monitor operators' attention and alertness.
Oh sure, in-class and on-the-job training were mentioned, however, I got the feeling that everyone was impatient to get done with talking about training quickly and on to the next glitzy technical innovation. No one actually said it, but it seemed from the lip service it received that training was old-fashioned and just plain boring. And maybe it is, but I still can't think of anything more essential to improving operator performance or the appropriate actions of anyone in a critical situation.
Training has always been essential to steadily building the skills that everybody needs to master their crafts, including athletes, soldiers, musicians, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and physicians, to name a few. Repetitive practice and drilling gradually combine neural pathways in the brain, and these links allow participants to carry out complex actions faster and more efficiently than someone who hasn't practiced those skills. More recent research shows that sleep and dreaming after practice helps set these new skills in mental concrete, so they can be called on later.
But, as worthwhile and relatively inexpensive as training is, it's still boring—a time-sucking job that requires patient and methodical instruction by teachers and willingness to practice, repetition and evaluation by students. On-screen courses and simulations can help, but I suspect most of those annoying hours still have to be put in, and frequent refreshers will be needed later. The firefighters and EMTs that I used to cover were forever drilling on all the scenarios they might encounter so they wouldn't risk wasting precious seconds during a fire or medical emergency.
Faced with training's perceived drudgery, many operations supervisors, process engineers, system integrators and managers can be forgiven for wanting some other solutions for improving operator performance. Implementing muted-color displays, ergonomic furniture, exercise equipment near the control room or co-joined, easily accessible software platforms just has to be easier than pounding new skills into often-resistant human heads, right?
This preference is reinforced by the fact that engineering in general and process control in particular aren't exactly famous for calling on or nurturing people skills. And while process control and automation are all about having devices take over formerly manual tasks, countless optimization, safety-related and quality control jobs remain for operators to do, and they need the training and skills to perform them.
As a result, training needs advocates who will quantify and promote its efficiency and financial benefits. And these supporters of more and better training often will have to agitate their managers into enabling routine, but vital instructional programs. I know that bugging my sources into giving me interviews and information can be very irritating, but I believe it still has a positive outcome.
So, while software and components may replace operators someday, it's not today. For now, slick HMIs, ergonomic workstations, sophisticated alerts and alarms and situational awareness software are the gravy, and they still need a bed of meat-and-potatoes training.