In January 1989, an article on computer-based control room design was our first to acknowledge the importance of operator performance. "Closer lighting design and control becomes necessary as the operator's field of vision narrows from control panel indicators and graphic displays to computer graphics and CRT/keyboard control," we wrote. Control room colors and noise are important elements of the operations environment We noted that operators were spending more time sitting: "With the advent of computer control, operators become increasingly sedentary…readability of the panel or graphic from the console must be ensured because the operator is now much less likely to leave the control station and stand 3 feet from the panel face."
As chronicled in the accompanying timeline, over the ensuing 25 years we expanded (and expounded on) our recognition of the operator's critical role in productivity, reliability, efficiency, knowledge management, innovation and of course, safety. Obviously, the entire automation and control system only exists to support the operator's task of running the plant as well as humanly possible.
Over the decades, Control continually pressed the frontiers of operator interface technology and visualized an idealized future, where the respected, fully trained and informed operator could quickly and easily spot potential equipment problems before they reduced production, run the process to maximize customer satisfaction and company profitability, minimize energy consumption and environmental impact, keep everyone safe, and still be home in time for dinner with his or her family.
Recent years have seen amazing advances in the operator's environment and sphere of control. HMIs are using situational awareness principles and alarm rationalization to improve operator decisions, while reducing response times. Consoles move and lighting changes in response to operators' physical dimensions, moods and operating modes, from smooth running to high alert. Field-based interfaces support tablets, smartphones and wearable components so operators can stay in control and in touch with each other, field-based personnel, remote experts and their knowledge bases at all times.
Simulation software enables operators to train virtually on the operating plant, and are aided to identify potential problems and opportunities rapidly by artificial intelligence, condition-monitoring and decision-support packages. The future will increase the power of these packages with more sensors, more powerful data analysis and better presentation of information when and how the operator needs it.
"The eternally innovative spirit that inspired all these great tools, automation and controls in the first place is never completely satisfied because it never really switches off," says Jim Montague, executive editor. "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."