Perfect Fit: Operator Performance

Enhancing Operator Performance Means Tailoring the Right Combination of Situation-Aware Displays, Rationalized Alarms, Ergonomic Consoles and Field-Capable Interfaces. Here's How Users Maintain Operator Effectiveness

By Jim Montague

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Ever since people first started using labor-saving tools, they've gladly accepted whatever occupational difficulties and hazards that came with them. Just as getting blisters from digging with a shovel is still way better than scratching the earth with bare hands, operating today's huge mining shovels and trucks or running deep-sea oil drilling, extraction or distribution facilities is better than each of the old methods they replaced. Who cares if the control room is cramped, poorly lit and spits out cascades of nuisance alarms? It's still better than what went before, right?

Too true, but the eternally innovative spirit that inspired all these great tools, automation and controls in the first place is never completely comfortable or satisfied because it never really switches off. That's why engineers are always trying to find new and better solutions, and why formerly separate methods of improving operator performance in process control continue to be perfected, but also are starting to merge into a unified whole that's tailor-made to better suit the needs of each user and application.

For instance, training is getting out of the classroom to include more realistic simulations; SCADA software and HMIs are using situation-awareness principles and alarm rationalization to build more effective displays; consoles and control rooms are improving ergonomics and even adding balance and aerobics; and field-based interfaces are adding more network pathways and Internet links, as well as tablet PCs, smart phones and wearable components. Bring your own device (BYOD) seems to be going on everywhere, and this presents a bunch of new opportunities and new problems to solve.

New Applications, Better Education

Because so many process applications are retooling or adding units to handle new or more varied products, even veteran operators are finding they need some added training along with the rookies. However, everyone is learning their instruction can come in some new, unexpected, multimedia forms and use more real-life input.

Also Read "Operators Equipped for Effective Decision-Making"

For example, China National Petroleum Corp.'s 40-year-old Qingyang Petrochemcal Co. recently added an oil refining facility that can process 3 million tons of products per year, and it implemented ABB's Freelance DCS, which consists of 19 pairs of redundant AC 800F controllers to manage 12 processes and auxiliary systems with approximately 10,000 I/O points. This DCS also includes four engineering stations and 32 operator stations with intuitive interfaces, networking via 100-Mbps, fiber-optic Ethernet, and communications via Profibus PA/DP, HART, Foundation fieldbus and Modbus protocols. It uses redundant process control stations, network connections and power supplies to ensure safe production.

However, because this was a new refinery and many of Qingyang's operators were unfamiliar with their new equipment, ABB also provided its operator training system (OTS) as part of its project delivery, so the staff could quickly learn their new systems and equipment, avoid errors and achieve steady operations. Based on Qingyang's individual requirements, ABB didn't stop with the OTS and also extended Freelance's standard soft controller functions and added customized functions and corresponding interface software.

Reinforcing Awareness

Besides using training devices linked to actual controller tasks and data for better instruction, operators also are benefiting from improved displays and greater use of situation-awareness recommendations and strategies. However, even though many higher-resolution displays and support tools are available, sometimes operators need to make a cultural change before they can really begin to embrace and use them, says Jason Wright, PlantPAx system marketing manager at Rockwell Automation. "Many operators tell us they want their new displays to look just like their old ones, which means their user experience and effectiveness won't improve. So we're trying to convince users to apply some new HMI strategies by presenting them as a workforce solution and implementing them with the least impact to existing systems. This is why our recent PlantPAx Sequencer 3.0 release has display elements and a library that are much easier to program and deploy. They also show performance targets, operating ranges and histories, which give operators better context and intelligence. And these elements also remain in synch over time, so they're easier to track in the future, which also aids acceptance."

Roy Tanner, ABB's 800xA product marketing manager, adds that, "More people are catching on to the value of using high-performance graphics and situation-awareness tactics. Luckily, where only big oil and gas, chemical and power companies used to be able to afford high-performance graphics and address situation awareness, these days even small water utilities and other small companies can use them and gain better situation awareness, too."

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