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New Technologies Could Make Operators More Effective

April 20, 2011
ABB Works to Develop Operator Interfaces That Are More in Line With What End Users Need to Improve Efficiency

Just as today's younger generation of control operators are typically more comfortable with computers and video games than their more seasoned counterparts, the kids today who will grow up to be the operators of tomorrow are more attuned to the natural interfaces of iPhones/iPads and whatever the next iteration of those devices will be.

Martin Olausson and Susanne Timsjö of ABB Corporate Research spoke Wednesday at ABB Automation and Power World about the operators of the future, and how ABB is working to develop operator interfaces that are more in line with what end users need to improve efficiency.

"They are much more used to digital devices like this," said Olausson. "They will not accept anything less than what they have at home. They demand more from us."

With an eye to the future, they spoke of incorporating such technologies as eye tracking, video game software, natural user interfaces and information visualization into industrial operator interfaces. "Digital natives will be the plant personnel of tomorrow," Olausson said.

ABB's researchers are looking into technologies that are a good fit for process control. With eye tracking technology, for example, if the system knows where on the screen the operator is looking, it can move unnecessary information out of the way. If the operator gets an alarm, and he's not even looking at the alarm on the screen, perhaps the system needs to do something more to get his attention. And if he tries to acknowledge an alarm without even reading what the alarm is, the necessary button could be disabled until he's looked at the alarm.

Timsjö described a user experience that could be similar to video games like EA's "Battlefield," in which the operator would be put directly into the control space. She referenced one user that ABB's researchers observed over time: Nick, a young operator who was often bored with his job, sometimes even falling asleep. "We really need to keep him awake," she said. "What if we put him into the environment? We could use red arrows in the screen instead of an alarm list to really highlight that there's a critical situation."

With a nod to the way Tom Cruise moved information around large screens with his hands in the movie "Minority Report," natural user interfaces found today on iPhones and iPads could allow operators to control a plant directly on the screen surfaces rather than using buttons. And the kind of technology that's popular in Microsoft's Kinect gaming system could allow operators to use gestures to operate controls more effectively.

"Are we prepared for the future? We see all these devices, and when we look in the control room, we still see keyboards." ABB Corporate Research's Susanne Timsjö explained how today's consumer technologies could be used in the operator interfaces of tomorrow.These and other technologies could help to overhaul how operators interact with controls. "Are we prepared for the future?" Timsjö wondered. "We see all these devices, and when we look in the control room, we still see keyboards."

A Focus on Today

Although ABB's researchers are thinking about the operators of the future, they're also looking at the operators of today, working on more evolutionary changes that will help operators do their jobs more effectively. Despite the thought that's gone into the design of its operator interfaces, even ABB's users have sometimes felt forgotten in the design, according to Timsjö. In System 800xA, ABB's integrated, collaborative automation platform, a context menu offers several choices for users. "But in reality, there are too many options; it's too long to be effective," Timsjö said. "We need to put the user in focus to make sure we design our products in the best way."

Like a game of telephone in which a message gets jumbled as it's whispered through a chain of people, the line of people that extends between the user and the interface developer is very long, fostering misunderstandings. "We have added a direct link between these roles to make the developer understand what the user needs to ensure correct functionality and ease of use from the beginning," Olausson said.

Quoting Joel Spolsky, Timsjö noted, "A user interface is well-designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would." On the other hand, sometimes ABB's researchers can realize needs that operators didn't even know they had through observation, she added.

ABB's researchers spend several days with end users, observing them, asking questions and taking notes about what they see, Olausson explained. Then they take the information back and analyze what they've seen, looking also to see if there are geographic differences in behavior. The team develops concepts and prototypes and takes them back to the users. "If it's not better, then we never release it," Olausson said. When it's good, it's handed over to R&D.

In a recent project detailed by Timsjö and Olausson, researchers set out to make System 800xA more effective for operators. The aim was to support operator workflow through improved learnability and ease of use, incorporating modern visualization technologies and future concepts.

They studied operators in the U.S., China, Indonesia and Sweden, finding similar needs around the world, regardless of culture or industry:

  • Although System 800xA has a great deal of functionality, most users limited their use to a relatively small part of that functionality.
  • The operators miss the legacy Advant keyboard with its dedicated function keys.
  • The built-in navigation support is seldom used because it's too long. Instead, users build in navigation support as buttons in a graphic display.
  • Experienced operators like to modify the process graphics themselves.
  • Operations were often timed using an egg timer, leading researchers to realize that they should incorporate a timing functionality into the interface.
  • Young, inexperienced operators were dependent and frustrated when controlling the plant. They had problems troubleshooting from the alarm list. In Sweden, they were often bored and frustrated with their work.

As the researchers analyzed the results, they created 50 operators; 50 personalities that the developers could have in mind while creating the interface. All the information was compiled into stories and scenarios to put users and their needs into context. "They will get a system that's really based on what the user needs," Timsjö said. "It doesn't provide too much functionality, but provides what's necessary and useful."

There are many more changes going on today in operator interfaces than there were even five years ago; changes in how people are interacting with computers, Olausson noted. But the changes must succeed in making operations easier, cheaper and more effective, he added.

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