Innovation's New Frontier

June 7, 2010
Q&A with Emerson's Peter Zornio

Over the past 30 years, the automation industry has made incredible strides in technology. The capability and functionality of today's digital automation systems arguably have advanced to a point where they have outpaced the ability of many end users to take full advantage of the technology they already have in place.

So it is, says Peter Zornio, Emerson Process Management chief strategic officer, that the next step change in automation innovation will come, not from adding new features and functionality, but from subtracting complexity—making automation technology easier to use; easier to implement and manage;  easier to bring to bear for business benefit.

Control recently caught up with Zornio to discuss Emerson's commitment to human-centered design (HCD) and how it continues to reshape the company's offerings, notably its new DeltaV S-series digital automation system architecture, and what the company calls "I/O on Demand," which is intended to do nothing less than reinvent how I/O gets done in the process industries.

Q: How did Emerson identify human-centered design as an important driving force in the company's development efforts?

A: We actually identified "usability" as a key strategic imperative about five years ago. We conducted surveys of our customers and found that their challenges increasingly revolve around people. The "old" challenges of the past—global competition, optimizing production and complying with regulations— are all still there, but the people challenge has come into focus for our customers as key to running safe, reliable and highly productive plants.     

Users face a productivity paradox: There's more technology than ever, and plants are trending toward larger and more complex processes. Meanwhile, experienced worker are retiring; fewer, less experienced workers are coming in; and what specialists are left are stretched ever more thinly. Further, new plants are coming online in rapidly growing markets in far-away places where the operators may have little familiarity with computers and electronics. HCD principles can make it easier for them to come up to speed and help them operate with fewer errors.

Anecdotally, we had a customer come to Austin and say, "Your technology must pass the 20/20 rule for it to be useful to me." He explained that to solve any particular problem, he may have to "pick from 20 people," and whoever is picked must be able to solve the problem "in 20 minutes." Only technology built for ease-of-use can solve this problem.

Q: How has human-centered design changed Emerson's development process?

A: As we investigated how to improve usability, we began to work with Carnegie Mellon University, the leader in human-centered design for industrial applications—which itself has only been around as a discipline for the past 15 to 20 years. We developed a better understanding of what we needed to do. We made organizational changes and investments, such as creating our own Human-Centered Design Institute. And today, we've put more than 60 key staffers through immersion training in HCD principles.

From an Emerson product development perspective, human-centered design has meant that instead of interviewing customers only to understand how they use or interact with a product, we interview and observe them to understand what they do in their work and how they interact with others. We've created personas for various positions to illustrate how people actually use and interface with the technology. This has helped us better understand how to design the technology around them.

In the end, our HCD goals became three-fold: to eliminate work, to remove complexity and to embed knowledge.

We used to talk to our customers about the need to change their work practices to get the maximum benefit from technology—but as it turns out, no one's available to rewrite those work processes.  So step one is making things easier by engineering the work out of the process. Second, for the work that cannot be eliminated, we're striving to remove complexity: Make it simple as possible, and make the technology do the hard part. Our third aim is to embed within the technology the knowledge of those experienced people who are leaving—or who perhaps were never there in the first place.

Q: One recent outcome of Emerson's focus on human-centered design is "I/O on Demand," a concept revealed at last fall's Emerson Exchange in conjunction with the DeltaV S-series launch. Can you explain more about what makes this new approach to input/output so revolutionary?

A: At its core, I/O on Demand is all about affording customers the greatest degree of flexibility in their I/O decisions with the least amount of effort and risk. Regardless of I/O type chosen—traditionally wired, bussed or even redundant wireless—users can add and begin using input and output points natively and with far less engineering, design and field work than previously possible. 

But it's not just choice of I/O type. On demand means flexibility in time and place too. Our electronic marshalling solution, for example, allows users to execute projects far more quickly—gracefully accommodating those inevitable last minute changes and reducing time-to-production. Our SmartWireless offering essentially allows incremental "wireless I/O" to be distributed seamlessly throughout the plant, wherever and whenever the need for a new measurement point is identified.

We've also used HCD principles to change the game in Foundation fieldbus—streamlining segment engineering and installation effort, as well as eliminating many of the potential installation problems having to do with power, grounding and termination issues. Another way in which we allow users to further leverage their I/O investment is in the seamless communication of DeltaV SIS (safety instrumented system) information to the basic process control system (BPCS). In this way, information from safety I/O can be used to allow the BPCS to make more informed control decisions.

More than a collection of HCD-driven enhancements, I/O on Demand represents a fundamental transformation of Emerson's PlantWeb architecture. An integrated, wireless infrastructure gives plants a flexibility to respond to changing needs during its entire life cycle. Fieldbus has become easier to implement and even more cost-effective. And electronic marshalling has revolutionized how conventionally wired projects get done. It's the first real update to a 35-year-old engineering practice.