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2020 Control Process Automation Hall of Fame: Ian Nimmo

April 16, 2020
Part 4: Ian Nimmo among four inductees to the Control Process Automation Hall of Fame

Read about our other 2020 Inductees: 

  • Penny Chen
  • Duncan Mellichamp
  • Martin (Marty) Zielinski

From pioneering industrial autonomy to mitigating the risks inherent in large capital projects, the four individuals inducted into the Control Process Automation Hall of Fame this year have all shaped the practice of process automation, and the ripples they’ve already created will long outlast their own careers. All were enthusiastically nominated and confirmed by the current membership—and, I believe, in spirit by those no longer with us, including Charles Cutler who recently left us for more greener, more optimal pastures.

Please join me in welcoming Penny Chen, senior principal technology strategist, Yokogawa; Duncan Mellichamp, professor emeritus, University of California Santa Barbara; Ian Nimmo, owner and principal, User Center Design Services; and Marty Zielinski, technology director (retired), Emerson, to the this esteemed school of very big fish.

In the service of operators

From his earliest days as an apprentice electrician at ICI’s massive Teeside complex in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s, Ian Nimmo had little patience for solving the same problem twice. Then as now, he derives tremendous satisfaction from applying permanent fixes to recurring operational problems—especially when they involve digging into and addressing the underlying issues that are all too likely to resurface if not resolved.

“You can’t be frightened of change,” explains Nimmo, now the founder and principal of User Centered Design (UCD) Services, a Phoenix-based consultancy created to help the process industries improve the safety and performance of their operations by improving the situational awareness of front-line operators. “At the end of the day, the biggest questions to be asked are why are we doing this, and what is the benefit?”

As a younger man, Nimmo advanced through the control engineering ranks at ICI—including implementation of the U.K.’s first programmable logic controllers—he found himself responsible for computer applications across the entire Teeside site, which spanned 25 square miles and 72 units. Nimmo describes a formative incident involving a watchdog timer that failed and randomly opened all the control system’s outputs, dumping molten polymer on the deck, then flooding the area with nitrogen, nearly overcoming the human operators. It was a prime motivator for Nimmo’s pioneering work in adapting ICI’s hazard and operability study (HAZOPS) methodology to processes specifically controlled by computers (CHAZOPS).

From ICI, Nimmo was recruited to join the Honeywell Process Solutions business in the U.S. It was there that his passion for improving the safety of chemical operations found a refined focus: improving the situational awareness of human operators.

“And it’s been my passion for the past 25 years,” Nimmo says. He was a founding force behind the formation of the Abnormal Situation Management (ASM) Consortium, a NIST-funded, Honeywell-led group of operating companies and academicians intended to bring forward best practices in the area.

His work with the ASM Consortium took Nimmo into control rooms around the world to identify the common problems—and a methodology for solving them. First up was best practices in alarm management, which took the shape of the EEMUA Publication 191, “Alarm Systems: A Guide to Design, Management & Procurement.” Next, Nimmo and the Consortium took on best practices—that are now industry standard—for the overall design of operator displays. 

Despite the growing availability of such best practices documentation, Nimmo saw that many plants—especially those owned by smaller companies—didn’t have the resources or expertise to implement them. With this recognition, he formed User Centered Design Services in 2010 to help bring the “high-performance human-machine interface, or HMI” into general practice industrywide.

“High performance HMI is more than just converting graphics to grey scale,” explains Nimmo of the misconceptions held by some. “It’s the hierarchy of relationships that make sure operators never miss an important alarm again. It’s about the operator’s ability to detect, diagnose and respond better. And studies that have been done demonstrated a 50% improvement in detection, 30% in diagnosis, and 50% in response time.”

“Ian has made great contributions to the areas of alarm management and human machine interface through his roles at ICI, the ASM Consortium and at UCD Services,” confirms Dupont’s Nick Sands, a fellow believer in the power of HMI best practices. “In particular, his role as founder and director of the ASM Consortium had a significant impact on industry that echoes though many organizations today. Ian has helped many, including me, to understand the lessons of the past.”  

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But even today, Nimmo says he often finds as many as 50% of a plant’s control loops in manual, indicating those pesky, persistent problems that are worked around, but never resolved—and can come back to bite, and bite hard. “Part of the problem is a shortage of control engineers. No one on staff truly understands process control, and part-time effort means details are overlooked.” Indeed, Nimmo shows no sign of slowing down, and with so much work yet to do the prophet of high-performance HMI seems unlikely to hang up his boots any time soon.

About the author: Keith Larson
About the Author

Keith Larson | Group Publisher

Keith Larson is group publisher responsible for Endeavor Business Media's Industrial Processing group, including Automation World, Chemical Processing, Control, Control Design, Food Processing, Pharma Manufacturing, Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Processing and The Journal.

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