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."

Stan Devries, senior director of software solutions architectures at Invensys Operations Management, which is becoming part of Schneider Electric, explains, "We need to rethink training to include in-class, on-the-job and regular refreshers, instead of the usual training for a new project before start-up, and then neglecting it later. We've found cases where it took eight years of traditional training for operators to reach error-free status, but using established metrics could reduce that time to 1.5 years. This training is also important in pulp and paper, refining and other industries where operators can go seven years between shutdowns and overhauls, so many operators have never started their application up from zero.

"Effective training based on best practices is also crucial because more operators are becoming at least partially responsible for business performance, so they're trying to declutter their displays. This means focusing on quality alarms and grade-change alerts, but operators also want to know at the console about broader situations that their applications are in. They also want quick look-backs at previous batches to help show next steps, assist situation awareness, and avoid undesired situations or make the most of good situations."

To help these efforts, Invensys maintains a Situation Awareness Library that works in conjunction with its new Foxboro Evo process control platform and Wonderware InTouch software. The library's polar plots, spider charts and other indicators also are combined with Invensys' Dynamic Performance Measures consulting service, which takes a process unit's existing economic, quality and efficiency measures, then develops new targets and measures operators can use to make better decisions.

"The library works with our new InTouch 2014 software and Wonderware System Platform 2014, and gives operators a better context for their information instead of just showing them values, which they report is allowing them to find significant issues about 40% faster," says John Krawjewski, Invensys' product management director for HMI and supervisory control products.

Organize, Supervise, Optimize

Of course, one of the best ways to improve operator—and manager—performance is to provide an overall view of the entire facility and its processes before drilling down to individual applications or equipment. These big pictures remind users of the full scope of their responsibilities, especially at shift changes, and helps put subsystems and individual applications into a more understandable context, particularly in relation to their upstream and downstream processes.

For instance, India's state-owned Gail Gas Ltd. in New Delhi includes all aspects of the natural gas supply process from exploration and production to distribution and customer service. It operates two major liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) pipelines, Jamnagar Loni and Vizag Secundrabad, which move gas to bottling plants, and it runs seven natural gas pipelines across India with a total length of more than 10,700 kilometers.

Previously, Gail's operators used telephones to manually collect operations data for each regional pipeline. However, because its operators and administrators were having increasing problems managing so many different SCADA systems for their LPG and natural pipelines, Gail recently decided to install one centralized SCADA system for all of them, and integrate it with all future pipelines that were either under construction or planned.

After investigating several solutions, Gail selected Fast/Tools SCADA software from Yokogawa Electric Corp., which also designed and implemented a system architecture suited to Gail's existing pipeline network and able to integrate with its expansion requirements.  Consequently, Gail and Yokogawa replaced the pipelines' former networks and equipment, installed their new, unified SCADA system and integrated many types of remote terminal units (RTUs) and hundreds of individual devices in just 15 months, ending in July 2012.

The new SCADA system is in a main master station (MMS) that houses all of Gail's primary SCADA servers, which are located at the National Gas Management Center (NGMC) in Noida. This system was also installed at a hot back-up master station (BMS) in Jaipur in case of a disaster. Along with implementing Fast/Tools, Yokogawa installed a high-availability computing (HAC) solution that uses history, client and zonal servers in a triple-redundant configuration (Figure 1). From their terminals in the central control room, operators can view operations data 24/7 for all of their regional pipelines.

Each regional gas management center (RGMC) also has a Fast/Tools-based HAC that uses dual-redundant, front-end processor (FEP) servers for continual monitoring and control. Thanks to this redundant design, operations and maintenance data from the field also is uninterrupted, and operators, production engineers and analysts at the NGMC have real-time, visual access to information needed to run their nationwide network. In fact, Gail reports system availability for its entire pipeline network has increased to 99.5%, which ensures a steady supply of gas across India.

In addition, all of Gail's pipeline networks have been integrated with a gas management system (GMS), so operations data can be used directly for gas allocation and billing. Email and short message service (SMS) notification of critical alarms are supported, which allows authorized personnel to access the new SCADA system from anywhere with an Internet connection.

"This is the largest SCADA system ever commissioned by Gail," says S.K. Agrawal, Gail's deputy general manager. "Work on our new SCADA system included integration of approximately 400 RTUs of eight different makes. Besides improving operations and maintenance, centralized SCADA has substantially reduced our capital expenditures and operational expenditures. All the new pipelines coming up in the next 10 years will be integrated with this SCADA system."

Right in Front of Your Face

Because humans take in more than 90% of their information about the world through their eyes, the most crucial devices for improving operator effectiveness are still HMI displays and screens. Fortunately, black-background, cluttered and overly colorful screens have been giving way to simpler, less distracting displays with prioritized colors and concentration on the most important data values and alerts. These improvements are largely thanks to the work of the Abnormal Situation Management Consortium, Center for Operator Performance and PAS Inc. Many suppliers are following these recommendations for situation awareness, hosting displays on higher-resolution screens, and even offering HMIs that are large enough for several operators to work together when needed.

Stuart Andrew, product manager for Honeywell Process Solutions' Experion Process Knowledge System (PKS) HMIs, reports his firm just spent about a year observing and working with operators as part of its Operator of the Future Initiative to find the most effective and ergonomic conditions for them to work in, and redesigned its consoles as a result. The latest Experion Orion console and collaboration station will be released in mid-2014 (Figure 2).

"A key change in our console is that, where we used to have multiple small screens, Experion Orion will now have one, large, 50-inch, continuous work surface," says Andrew. "This will allow operators to lay out, display and combine information in front of them in the most effective way for each application.
Operators will no longer have to rotate between different screens when checking overviews, alarms, etc. Some operators also reported that using Windows and a mouse wasn't as quick and responsive as their former touchscreens and touchpads, so the new Orion will also have a touchpad component."

Likewise, Tanner adds ABB recently launched its 800xA Collaboration Table, which allows several users to examine an application and KPIs at once. It also uses some 3D visualization gained from gaming technology to illustrate those KPIs. "This could be especially useful to shift supervisors as they go through their day or when making sure everyone is on the same page at shift changes," adds Tanner.

Besides size, resolution and comprehensive indicators, operators also want the same manipulation capabilities they have on their smart phones and tablet PCs. "Users want the same multi-touch, pinch-and-zoom and sweeping features on their display screens that they have on their smart phones," says Jeff Payne, automation controls product manager at AutomationDirect. "That's one reason why we developed and launched our Point of View HMI/SCADA software about six months ago. It has drivers for many PLC families, uses many thin-client functions to give users greater access to their data, can be accessed via mobile clients or web browsers, and is able to scale onto any tablet PC or smartphone."

Of course, this mobility means more interfaces are making their way out into the field, but some operators are even trying to take more experienced eyeballs along with them. To aid this impulse, XOEye Technologies makes eyeglasses with a 5-megapixel camera, LED lights and audio speakers, which enables an operator to show colleagues back in the control room exactly what he's seeing in the field.

Rationalize, Record, Recreate

One of the most important ways to improve the performance of process control operators is to rationalize the streams of nuisance alarms produced by many applications, but deciding on which alarms are significant and require action and which aren't important and can be safely ignored is typically a complex, lengthy and labor-intensive process. These projects are worthwhile, but they usually require a dedicated team of engineers, so many small organizations can't afford them.

"One of InTouch's new features is Alarm Aggregator that allows users to place information about alarms into metadata areas. It then generates alarm counts, shows where they're occurring and on what devices, reduces them to four levels of severity, and shows only critical alarms in red," says Invensys' Krawjewski. "This means anyone, regardless of their skill level, can use these tools."

Andrew Brodie, Fast/Tools marketing manager in Yokogawa's control instruments division, adds that Fast/Tools' Alarm System Performance Analysis (ASPA) option can assist operators by evaluating alarms in its Alarm Master database, determine which are bad actors, and help users analyze their existing applications more deeply by comparing performance before and after changes are made.

"Operators can add a chronological date range, point it at their alarm database, and ASPA will work with Yokogawa's historian, which is proficient at gathering alarm data and identifying alarm trends," explains Brodie. "For smaller facilities, we also do alarm rationalizations as part of our Advanced Decision Support service. We help benchmark current situations, develop an alarm philosophy document, and help phase in an improvement plan."
Brodie adds that Fast/Tools V.10 was just released, and it has an event-based recording tool that can document all moves and mouse clicks in an application, find out what's been done wrong or right during a certain period, and retain targeted recordings of golden batch episodes that can be used later for training. Looking outside the process, Fast/Tools also has a Collaboration Decision Support Center, which aggregates and displays data sources external to the application but still relevant to it (Figure 3).

Rise and Walk

Beyond being mobile in the field, some developers are encouraging operators to be more mobile and active at their desks in the control room. Some facilities have exercise equipment next to their control rooms, and some developers are making consoles, desks and chairs that allow operators to stand as well as sit while they're working. Honeywell's Andrew adds, "Control room operators are still working many 12-hour shifts, but their roles are changing from manipulating and optimizing processes to hitting economic targets, and this can add a lot of stress. As a result, ergonomic designs are adding sit/stand modes to many workstations, so operators can avoid the health dangers of sitting all the time."

For instance, Connexus Energy Group is a customer-owned energy cooperative in Ramsay, Minn., that serves 126,000 members in seven counties north of the Twin Cities. Its operations control center recently needed new consoles as part of an upgrade to a new SCADA system to improve communications with its substations and reduce response time to outages.

Besides enabling all communications functions at each console so operators wouldn't have jump from station to station, Connexus also wanted adjustable-height consoles to fit its differently sized operators and reduce their neck and back aches from craning to see stacked-up monitors. So the utility adopted Ascend Sit/Stand consoles from Winsted Corp., which allow Connexus' operators to raise and lower their workstations to whatever level is most comfortable (Figure 4).

"What we didn't anticipate is that operators are leaving their consoles in the stand position as the default," says Nick Loehlein, Connexus' systems operations leader. "We'd assumed the standing position would be the exception rather than the rule, but they're standing during their night shifts. If they want to sit, they take a tall chair and maybe sit for a half an hour, and then they stand right back up again."

Smart Everywhere

Because so many operators, engineers and managers are practicing BYOD in their facilities, many suppliers are scrambling to offer apps for the flood of smart phones and tablet PCs coming onto some plant floors. Most of these apps are enabled by the HTML 5 standard that allows their graphics to scale up or down, and fit on different-sized displays.

Mario Mitchell, electronics product manager at Parker Hannifin Corp., reports his company recently launched iOS and Android versions of its Remote Manager app, which can control its Factory Display and Express HMI software. "With just an IP address and a password, operators and managers can view their operations and control processes, see critical information and alarms, and even turn devices on and off."

While its IntelaTrac mobile, data input devices have been available for years, Invensys recently relaunched its SmartGlance industrial mobile reporting app, which delivers secure, on-demand access to graphical reports from any operations data source via mobile devices. Meanwhile, its InTouch Access Anywhere software also uses HTML 5 to show all indicators and controls on any device with a web browser.

Tanner reports that ABB is beginning to explore eye-tracking technology and augmented reality tools to further enhance its interfaces. He adds its augmented reality efforts, such as overlays for displaying temperatures, trends and alarms, can be examined by looking up the 800xA symbol at the Apple iTunes Store

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