Situational awareness smoothes operations

April 29, 2015
How to help your operators save lives, avoid incidents and reduce waste
About the Author
Paul Studebaker is chief editor of Control. He earned a master's degree in metallurgical engineering and gathered 12 years experience in manufacturing before becoming an award-winning writer and editor for publications including Control and Plant Services."The successful operator does nothing. When he's busy, it's because of a bad situation," said Grant Le Sueur. "How can we let them spend more time doing nothing?"

The key to a better life for operators is situational awareness, Le Sueur, senior director, process and safety software, Schneider Electric, told attendees of the Downstream Oil & Gas session at the company's 2015 Global Automation Conference in Dallas.

Situational awareness (SA) becomes possible when controls are tuned so the plant runs smoothly, alarms are rationalized so the operators are not overwhelmed, and interface graphics are properly designed so the operator can see problems, make fast decisions, and act in the plant's best interest.

Le Sueur cited a case in which proper loop tuning has saved $1.9 million per year at a power generation facility by reducing valve travel, valve reversals and process variable standard deviations, allowing the plant to increase production 2.5% by running closer to the limits.

"How many of your loops are in manual and why?" asked Le Sueur "Usually it's because they're out of tune or unstable, maybe due to an undersized valve or a sloppy actuator. They're a nightmare for the operator, so he puts them in manual. Fix them and your process will also run better."

"How many of your loops are in manual, and why?" Grant Le Sueur, senior director, process and safety software, Schneider Electric, challenged attendees of the Downstream Oil & Gas session at the company's 2015 Global Automation Conference in Houston.

In another case, Le Sueur said, alarm management has netted a 6500-MW facility $500,000 per year by reducing configured alarms 44%, reducing prioritization levels to within EEMUA standards and reducing startup time and manpower by 50%.

"When it comes to improving alarm response, you generally can get 80% of the benefit with 20% of the effort by tuning alarms," Le Sueur said. "Too many alarms per minute render the operator useless."

Graphics redesign has netted $1 million annually for a 1.6-billion lb/yr ethylene facility by decreasing operator response times 40% and increasing identification of rising problems from 70% to 90%.

"Flashy graphics are not the way to inform operators," Le Sueur said. "Intelligently design your operator environment and how you tell your operators how to operate your plant. It's fun, but making a 3D tank image gives no more information to the operator. It's useless and distracting."

Seven essentials for situational awareness

Experts define seven facets of situational awareness:

  1. A fully functional automation system.
  2. Rationalized alarms: Real alarms that call for real actions.
  3. Graphics that reveal information, not just data. "Beauty adds no value," Le Sueur said.
  4. Operator training simulations. "A refinery operator should have experience before he needs it, just like an airliner pilot," said Le Sueur.
  5. Proper operator loading. Don't ask the operator to do too much; and provide guidance, not just a dusty procedure manual.
  6. Control room design to meet human factors. Not reclining chairs so the operators fall asleep, but comfortable in a way that keeps them rested and alert.
  7. Communications among different production units and areas, so they'll know if the seal water pressure has failed. "Use Skype," suggested Le Sueur.

Six signs that you have a problem

Le Sueur advised attendees to answer these six questions to see if attention to situational awareness might profit their plant:

  • Do you see a lot of operational variability between shifts?
  • What percent of downtime is caused by people and work errors; i.e., opening valve C instead of valve B?
  • Are operators reactive rather than proactive due to overload?
  • Are experienced operators retiring and taking critical knowledge?
  • How long does it take to train a new operator?
  • How many near misses – do you even know? You should find out.

"Situational awareness is not a science experiment," Le Sueur asserted. "Billions of dollars have been invested by industry, and many standards agencies, guideline consortiums and specialized consultants recommend situational awareness practices."

Schneider Electric has driven the latest thinking in graphics across product lines from Wonderware to Foxboro Evo to Triconex, Le Sueur said. "We can create a level of consistency, a palette that might not exist otherwise in your operations, so an operator on Unit C can move to Unit A with consistency."

The company has subject matter experts trained on its situational awareness library (SAL) in each of more than 30 regions worldwide, developing SAL templates for common unit operations and versed in the proper use of alarm management and loop-tuning tools.

Le Sueur said, "Answer the questions to see if you have a problem, and if you do, situational awareness may well provide the solution.