Pictures Beat Words

The Industry Needs Rebranding. Young People Today Think That Working in Power or Petrochemical Plants Involve Shoveling Coal, But A Graphical Presentation Can Easily Change This Point of View

By Jim Montague

Ever been mugged by an idea? I was happily reporting and writing about ABB Automation & Power World 2012 on April 23-26 when it hit me that that almost all the stories I was covering had a powerful underlying theme. Pictures, graphical models, videos—and the more immersive and hands-on perceptions that go with them—are kicking out words and text. You can check out all of our coverage at, and judge for yourself.

First up, Dirk Hughes, PE, director of Luminant Academy, reports the Texas power utility's program for recruiting students at local schools and colleges had to make some unusual adjustments. "Some of the latest research indicates that electric utilities worldwide are expecting to lose 40% of their staff to retirement by 2015, and the process industries are only two or three years behind us," explains Hughes. "As a result, we had to become more aggressive in attracting, training and retaining new employees, and so we're look at ways to bring in Generation Y. We ask if they'd like to work in a power plant, and they ask if it has an Xbox game controller.

"Unfortunately, only 3% of high school graduates want to work in power or petrochemical facilities because they're seen as companies where workers shovel coal, so we also had a branding problem to overcome. We've also worked on branding to try fixing young people's image of power plants as places where their grandfathers used to work, and we've also made our websites a lot more kid-friendly."

Similarly, the event's exhibit floor featured ABB Automation Arena (AAA), which is a small, enclosed theater that presents a short film on the problems facing the staff at a hypothetical process plant and how ABB's 800xA Extended Automation platform can help solve them. The players lay out all the performance and emotional difficulties caused by their lack of organization, and then demonstrate how 800xA's tools can give them common views into their application, help them learn to speak the same technical language and coordinate their efforts for better results.

"When customers are told by sales people about how a process control solution works or read about it in text or a PowerPoint, it remains an abstract concept that can be hard to grasp and remember. We wanted to offer a more immersive explanation and experience," says Tobias Becker, senior VP and global business unit manager for ABB Control Technologies.

Along with the film, AAA's format shows how operators can use 800xA on flatscreen displays enabled by Matrox Electronic Systems to help fewer operators control more I/O points and functions, minimize risk, reduce unplanned shutdowns and even attract and retain talented staff, especially those much-sought younger candidates. Becker adds, "The arena shows how local and remote operators share relevant screens, instructions and video; understand problems faster; collaborate on real-time problem solving; and even demonstrate to managers and CEOs who haven't worked in control rooms the true value of what operators are doing to achieve higher-efficiency operations."

Of course, all these pictures and videos are extremely data-intensive, so Katrin Kerber, Matrox's account manager, reported how different types of virtualized computing can keep all these visual activities running. "Virtualization is one concept of enabling split computing approaches that separate the host from the operator interface using bus extension technologies, KVM-extender solutions, virtualization over IP, and compression/decompression technologies," explains Kerber. "In general, bus extension is the most reliable the robust virtualization method, and it provides true real-time because the bus itself is communicating with the device. Combining these technologies and methods in the control room can help create a truly collaborative environment that shares and makes information available to everyone, especially for focused incident handling."

What's the score? Pictures 1. Words 0.