Developing People: Making operators more effective

Tools and methods for creating an industrial operator workplace ready for the needs of today and tomorrow. Improved situational awareness and better handling of abnormal conditions helps operators make better decisions and improve safety and process uptime.


Process industries globally lose around $20 billion annually due to process disruptions, which represents about 5% of total production. Studies suggest 80% of these losses are preventable, and of these preventable losses, 40% are primarily due to operator errors. This means that the total improvement potential—if a way can be found to help avoid mistakes—totals $6.4 billion. Operator effectiveness is a fundamental element for sustaining the economic value of process control and management.

One place to begin the process is by empowering operators through improved situational awareness and better handling of abnormal conditions. Operators can then make better decisions and so improve safety and process uptime.

The traditional versus a customized way of presenting data with different effects on situation awareness. Courtesy: ABB

Striving for operator effectiveness implies facing a number of significant challenges regarding both technology and management. For instance, managing and monitoring industrial processes is characterized by inevitable changes in technology, a diminishing knowledge base due to demographic changes in the workforce, and the ever-increasing complexity of operations. These factors may lead to huge cost escalations if operator effectiveness is not taken into account rigorously.

Developing an effective HMI (human machine interface) needs to look at the operator’s workflow and requirements. A recent survey on operator effectiveness shows that this view is also shared by many of ABB’s customers.

Four pillars of operator effectiveness

ABB's Extended Operator Workplace. The right combination of equipment and ergonomics creates an environment that lowers stress levels and allows operators to improve situational awareness. Courtesy: ABBWhen designing an automation system, there are four main pillars affecting an operator’s performance:

  • Integrated operations
  • Design for high-performance
  • Attention to human factors, and
  • Operator competence.

Integrated operations

An effective control system should provide customers with the means to consolidate and rationalize data from various sources seamlessly. It achieves collaboration between different computer programs and systems, supplying operators with all necessary information from any number of sources. Operators have intuitive access to actionable information and can manage views dynamically and effectively. These features reduce the time required to identify necessary actions.

Today, an operating plant may include multiple controller platforms including PLCs (programmable logic controllers), DCSs (distributed control systems), safety systems, FASs (facilities automation systems), and ECSs (electrical control systems) to name just a few. In addition, plant information systems such as CMMS (computerized maintenance management systems), ERP (enterprise resource planning), video monitoring systems, and data historians are also available and contain valuable information that can support operators in their decision making.

Design for high performance

Many standards organizations and research institutes have made and continue to make valuable contributions to HMI philosophies. This knowledge has flowed into guidelines for interface design, ergonomics, situation awareness, and alarm management. Drawing on this as well as its own extensive expertise, ABB, along with other system designers, supports the establishment of good standards through its active participation in various technical committees, working groups, and scientific committees of standards-development organizations.

One key area affecting HMI development is the handling of abnormal situations. Abnormal situations are disturbances or incidents with which the control system is not able to cope of its own accord, and thus requires operator intervention. When implementing a control system project, it is critical to customize the workplace layout based on the end user’s operational philosophy, and provide support for the implementation of high-performance alarm management strategies with features such as alarm shelving (operator-driven alarm suppression) and alarm hiding (condition-based alarm suppression). These features reduce the number of nuisance and noncritical alarms and so help end users meet or exceed current guidelines and standards such as EEMUA 191 and ISA SP18.2.

Design for the layout of a control room. Effective facility design puts all the resources, operators, and production management needs within easy reach. Courtesy: ABB

Ian Nimmo, abnormal situation management expert and author of “High Performance HMI Handbook,” believes that a driving factor of high-performance design for HMIs is situation awareness. He says, “Having good situation awareness means the operator has an accurate perception of the current condition of process and equipment, and an accurate understanding of the meaning of various trends in the unit.”

Some of the key concepts that situation awareness reflects are color definitions and use to maximize visibility of abnormal situations. The situation awareness concept is not new. It is, however, still a matter of debate between multiple organizations. One aspect being debated is the use of grayscale or cool process graphic schemes. In addition, navigation methodology, graphic-level definition for fast response under abnormal conditions, and presentation of information are used to seek to predict and avert abnormal situations completely.

A System 800xA simulator providing a safe, yet realistic, environment for training. Courtesy: ABB

One good example of situation awareness as described in the “High Performance HMI Handbook” mentioned above concerns two graphics that both embed the same information but have totally different effects on situation awareness. A graphic with a black background and an abundance of colors leads to poor situation awareness even in normal situations, whereas the graphic with gray scales and the sharp color for alarm depiction represents good situation awareness.

Situation awareness can make a huge impact by:

  • Increasing the success rate in handling abnormal situations and returning to a normal mode of operation
  • Reducing the time it takes plant operators to complete required tasks during an abnormal situation, and
  • Raising the incidence rate of control room operators detecting an abnormal situation prior to alarms occurring.

Attention to human factors

System designers need to address attention explicitly to human factors. One main reason is that a skilled designer knows that a better working environment can reduce an operator’s stress, which in turn substantially increases the operator’s performance and effectiveness for handling abnormal situations, as well as reduces health issues and turnover of resources.

An effective operator workplace is equipped with advanced keyboards featuring hotkeys for multiclient handling, an operator desk system with motorized adjustable desk and monitor positioning, a directional sound system, and integrated dimmable lighting. Using such productive design concepts when creating control room environments has a major impact on the performance of operator teams. All these factors contribute to the enhancement of the operator environment and alertness level of control room operators.

Control room procedures are important to ensure consistency of operation. They can also support an operator in his or her activities that may be performed infrequently. An example of useful supporting mechanisms is the use of checklists to guide operators throughout the required procedures under specific circumstances.

A concept of a process display only viewed during abnormal situations. A collaboration board allows operators to communicate across shifts or with management. Courtesy: ABB

Clear definition of job roles and responsibilities is another vital element that characterizes successful operations. This means that all the tasks an operator needs to perform should be recognized and documented, including the tasks that go beyond operating in the normal mode.

In an effort to define a new standard for control rooms, or intelligent control centers, ABB and System 800xA have teamed with control-room furnisher CGM to create a demonstration project to emphasize an optimal control room layout with focus on human factors and ergonomics.  The “Future Operations Center” in Borås, Sweden, is the place to visit to get the latest information about how to build the optimal control room. It covers, among others, such topics as sound, noise absorption, floor material, light control, and the color status of the process.

Operator competence

When operators interact with processes, their actions often have huge business consequences, especially when the process is in an exceptional situation and operators need to understand and manage complex operations to support recovery. New technologies using simulators for advanced training can recreate the exact operator environment, including graphics and control logic. The simulator provides a safe and realistic environment in which process operators and instrument technicians can learn how to master the process and increase their confidence.

In view of rapid technological evolution, generational shifts in workforces, and increasing complexity of operations, there is an explicit need to address operator effectiveness directly throughout the whole lifecycle of a process-control system. To leverage the four pillars of operator effectiveness, a number of fundamental activities are continuously going on: user-centered design and an eye to the future.

Electronic desktop notes on the collaboration board. Courtesy: ABB

User-centered design

Designing an effective HMI requires focusing on the control room operator’s workflow and tasks. In order to achieve a good understanding of the workflow process and to obtain knowledge on how well the operator manages the significant number of operational tasks, the designer should perform operator task analyses together with operators through user studies. The methods for user study include interviews, field studies, and observations.

Interview questions are sent to the operators before a planned interview to ensure that the users have the right profile and knowledge, and that they are well-prepared. The interview questions may be structured or unstructured, both in the form they are asked and in the way they can be responded to.

Field studies and observations represent a way to identify and prioritize operators’ goals and needs. By visiting users in their own working environment and observing how they perform operational tasks, firsthand information is acquired with respect to the operators’ challenges and needs. This method is ideal for discovering incorrect or inefficient practices that the operators are not aware of. Operators’ opinions should also be sought and direct feedback collected both for good practices and in areas with potential for improvement.

The collected data can then be analyzed and synthesized. The data synthesis process includes identification of the main concepts, indications from each user study, and analysis of how they relate to the improvement of operator effectiveness.

Another effective way to increase user focus is the establishment of a customer reference group (CRG) comprising customers from various domains. The purpose of the reference group is three-fold:

  • Provide customers with firsthand information about ongoing and planned development projects
  • Permit customers to actively influence the supplier’s development of the system’s operator interface, and
  • Establish a forum for exchanging and testing ideas in user needs, trends, and future ventures in order to increase productivity and profits for customers.

Looking into the future

The continuous progress in software techniques related to user experience and interaction raises the need to permit existing human machine interfaces to evolve. As an example, ABB has a well-equipped user experience and interaction lab. The researchers look into the future, analyze the impact of emerging technologies, and explore efficient utilization and the reasonable combination of existing and emerging technologies. In particular, ABB has just created a new research area dedicated to operator effectiveness. One of its tasks is to look at new technologies in the market and their applications in industry domains. Examples include interaction, visualization, and design techniques.

Drop-down white board screen for discussions. Courtesy: ABB

Innovative ideas come from the viewpoint of centering operators’ work process and tasks to develop an effective HMI. It is common knowledge that process operation is teamwork. Different shifts need to communicate and cooperate with each other. Accordingly, to assist operators in undertaking these activities, one innovative idea is a collaboration board, permitting operators to leave messages on real-time process displays, or using a drop-down whiteboard for sketching discussions. Such a collaboration function can serve various roles, including plant management, system management, managers, and maintenance and operation staff.

Operator effectiveness is a timeless characteristic and will always be important. Accordingly, in addition to improving operator effectiveness for the present generation of operators, it is critical to take future generations into account. Some customers are telling ABB that as the current workforce matures, operator expectations are evolving. Many operators being hired today grew up with computers and are “digital natives.” For these new generations, visual learning is an ideal method to teach how the plant behaves. Studies of how such people operate the process show that they have more screens open than older crew members. They also ask for more customization of their screens. Newer operators tend to visualize the plant’s behavior graphically, whereas older operators seek to understand the plant in a sequential manner. System designers should be actively monitoring and applying future technologies and design concepts to address younger generations whose operating skills are different from those of today.

The secret to operator effectiveness

Operator effectiveness is a challenging area. Any company hoping to excel in this area must take a leading role in facilitating the pillars of operator effectiveness by:

  1. Leveraging an automation platform that can natively promote and provide the level of integration and centralization required to promote a collaborative environment.
  2. Providing assistance to meet standards and design philosophies in situation awareness and abnormal condition handling, as well as leverage an automation system that has the flexibility to meet specific customer requirements.
  3. Integrating human factors and best practices to provide the best in operator effectiveness.
  4. Providing not only operator training but an environment that uses the most valuable assets and existing intellectual property to build operators’ confidence and competence.

A process manufacturer intent on developing effective operators should create an environment that provides operator effectiveness, conduct continuous activities in user-centered design, and look into future technologies and their applications in the area of operator effectiveness. This can reduce the scope for errors through more efficient use of the operator’s technological experience, quick access to relevant data in every operational situation, and assistance to operators in decision-making processes. All of these imply sustained economic value.

ABB has achieved considerable success in boosting operational excellence by focusing on operators and by providing process control interfaces that facilitate operators’ ability to make the right decisions during all modes of operation. It is committed to remaining at the forefront of these developments through continued research and development, helping customers achieve operational excellence.

Hongyu Pei Breivold, Martin Olausson, Susanne Timsjö, and Magnus Larsson work for ABB Corporate Research, Västerås, Sweden. Roy Tanner is with ABB Inc., Wickliffe, Ohio.

Additional reading:

Atkinson, T., Hollender, M., 2010, Operator Effectiveness, Collaborative Process Automation Systems, ISBN 978-1-936007-10-3.

Hollifield, B., Oliver, D., Nimmo, I., Habibi, E., 2008, The High Performance HMI Handbook, ISBN-10: 0977896919, ISBN-13: 9780977896912, Plant Automation Services.

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