Back to the Future - Process Visualisation

Way back when a control room consisted of row upon row of ink-and-pen chart recorders and dials on panels in the walls. An experienced operator just needed to stand in the middle of the room and spin through 360 degrees to get a feel for what was happening (they did this subconciously all the time). Then came the DCS!

DCS screens reduced the amount of information visible to an operator dramatically. The standard displays showed numbers with no context. Trend displays, with their infinite configurability and scaling changes, never allow an operator to get used to a specific pattern or amplitude. With the DCS we generally overwhelm the operators with data, but give them very little information - information being data in context.

The old panels allowed an operator to intuitively understand what had happened in the past to get the process to its current state, which direction the process was moving in, whether other parts of the process were following or fighting etc. It is very hard to get at any of this information through a DCS.

New visualisation and graphical techniques mean that we should be able to turn the clock back and start giving operators contextualised, actionable information rather than a flood of data. But what information do they require? Is it useful to be able to see mass and energy flow imbalances through a piece of equipment? Would displays of heat flux and heat transfer coefficient be more meaningful to an operator than a heap of flow and temperature measurements around a heat exchanger? Would tracking the quantity of an individual component in a distillation tower over time help an operator to manage separation in the column?

I would love to know if anybody has had any success in trying to provide better contextualised, actionable information to operators in real time. What type of information is most useful, and what visualisation techniques have you found to be successful?

This was originally posted in "The Process Automation Usability Project" by the user  CHamlin. See the responses he got there and contribute with your own here.