HMI / Safety Instrumented Systems / Data Acquisition

Modern HMI puts 'human' front and center

Situational awareness focuses on undoing decades of data overload that's potentially costing billions of dollars in lost profitability

By Steve Diogo

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Studies show that poorly performing alarm systems and poorly designed human machine interfaces (HMIs) are contributing factors to major accidents and poor operating performance. Speaking this week at the Schneider Electric 2015 Global Automation Conference in Dallas, Barbara Martinez, principal solutions architect, explained the real cost of this problem and delivered a presentation on the ways that using color, shapes and data in context can deliver the most effective, reliable and safe means of operations management.

"Data is not information," Martinez said. "Information is data in context. For years, we have been throwing more and more data at operators—too much data for them to be able to use—and the results have been accidents, incidents and lost profitability."

This trend toward more data is an example of a problem that has been a major theme running throughout the week-long Global Automation Conference: allowing technology, not people and solutions, to drive development.

"Our goal is to put the ‘human' back in HMI," Martinez said. The Foxboro Evo Control HMI was one of many products and services showcased during the conference that centered on commitment to functional design and human factors engineering.

"Understanding how people process information and giving them the information they need the way they need it is the absolute heart of human factors engineering," said Grant Le Sueur, senior director, control and safety software, Schneider Electric. "If you don't get this part right, you'll never reach true functional design."

In HMI, the problematic trend of technology-focused, rather than solutions-focused, design has coincided with three major industrial trends:

  • Plants are larger and more complex, which has led to increased monitoring load and a lack of understanding;
  • Increasing levels of automation have led to operators becoming overloaded with data and becoming disengaged. As a result their role has been reduced to dealing with upsets;
  • Centralized operations have led to loss of direct awareness.

Combine all of this and you wind up with overloaded, disengaged operators who are only reacting to upsets. "Imagine if that's how the pilot on your plane operated," she said. "Oops, I'm too high; oops, I'm too low. This is a really terrible way to fly a plane. It's also a really terrible way to control your process."

Martinez said intuitive HMI is designed not around a plant's piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs), but around the people who use them and around solving challenges faced by all plants:

  • Avoiding frequent plant upsets that affect production and safety;
  • Reducing brain drain and the chance of operator error; and
  • Keeping production on target.

Martinez said plants that have integrated modern, high-performance HMI have seen significant improvements over traditional HMI:

  • 48% detection rate vs. 10% in detecting abnormal situations before alarms occur;
  • 96% success rate vs. 70% in handling abnormal situations; and,
  • 10.6 minutes vs. 18.1 minutes in the time required to complete abnormal situation tasks.

"The simple fact is that all of this represents money," Martinez said, adding that unexpected events cost industry $10 billion a year.

Successfully transitioning to human-centered HMI is as much about the process as the program, Martinez said. To that end, Schneider Electric's Situational Awareness team provides consulting, design and training services that involve key team members including, of course, the operators who will use the system.

Le Sueur said the main challenge in transitioning to a new HMI system is the normal resistance to change. "But when operators see how intuitive a human-centered HMI can be, they become the biggest advocates."

Martinez encouraged anyone wishing information on Foxboro Evo Control HMI or the transition process to email the team at